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September 10, 2004
This week's feature is a little longer than usual (hope you don't mind), because cyberbullying is such an important topic. The behavior is increasingly common, parent awareness is needed, and we hear little about it from our kids because they have this unwritten rule that "what happens online stays online."
Here's the lineup for this first full week of September:
- Cybersocializing, cyberbullying: Where are the parents?
- Web News Briefs: Mobile phones & porn; Teen-only PC; Video-game history; Pro- anorexia sites; Teen hackers' exploits; Text hotline for UK teens; Update on filters in libraries....
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Cybersocializing, cyberbullying: Where are the parents?
For kids and teens, the online social scene is a little like what happens when 18-year-olds go off to college. Suddenly there's a lot of freedom; people get experimental socially. Most of what happens is relatively harmless, some not. What's different about the online scene is, the experimentation starts at a much younger age and - to an even greater degree - there are no grownups around.
What I mean is, so far...
The thing is, there's nothing private about it. It's all going on in a public forum, the Internet, and the youngest online socializers (kids 9-14) generally don't understand the implications. They don't understand that when they post text and pictures involving peers in a public forum it can be even more hurtful, it can spread far beyond their circles, and it can be nearly impossible to take back. That's why parents need to know what's going on and help our kids get some street smarts.
- Parents and educators have "few clues" about what's going on in the free- wheeling world of teen cybersocializing (Xanga.com, LiveJournal.com, Blogger.com, chat, email, IMs, file-sharing, etc.)
- There's an unwritten rule there that what happens online stays online (teens are reluctant to fill us in)
- Some of us parents even agonize about whether we should respect their privacy and not even go there (see "Daughter's blog, mom's dilemma").
To that end, I interviewed Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use (CSRI). Nancy, also a mother of three, has taught children with behavioral difficulties and has a background in computer and copyright law, as well as education technology.
She knows better than anyone that there's very little research on this subject (though there's plenty of anecdotal evidence - see links to news reports below). However, a recent nationwide survey of children and pre-teens by i-Safe found that 57% of kids in grades 4-8 said someone had said hurtful or angry things to them online, 13% "quite often"; 53% admitted to saying mean or hurtful things to others, 7% "quite often"; 35% had been threatened online, 5% "quite often"; 42% had been bullied online, 5% "quite often"; and 58% had not told their parents or another adult about receiving mean or hurtful comments. In the UK, 33% of 9-to-19-year-olds who use email, chat, IM, and/or texting phones at least once a week "have been sent nasty or hurtful messages, and only 4% of parents say their child's been bullied online, according to very recent research from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Nancy offers a few explanations for the cyberbullying phenomenon: First is the absence of adults I mentioned. The Internet is "their thing," kids think - and they're right, in the way they use it. Even grownups who visit political blogs or instant-message with colleagues at work use these technologies a lot differently from the way kids do.
Second is a kid version of free-speech rights - "this sense that the full disclosure of your thoughts - both personal information as well as your thoughts about other people - is perfectly acceptable on the Internet," Nancy said.
A third explanation is researchers' term "disinhibition," the way the Internet allows "space" between "speaker" and "hearer" in a conversation. Part of it is, there's no body language, no instant feedback, and kids can be anonymous or hide behind roles they play, so they say things they'd never say to someone in person. It's also a lot easier to gang up on someone when real names aren't attached to attackers.
News reports aren't focusing much on solutions to cyberbullying yet. One reason is probably that there are no quick fixes. A second is that there's often a very fine line - suddenly crossed when the participants, much less parents, least expect it - between cybersocializing and cyberbullying. Awareness of that fine line and what happens when it's crossed needs to grow, parents need to get involved in their kids' online lives, and schools need help (Nancy says school safety experts understand bullying but often not the cyber sort, and school tech experts usually don't understand the psychological issues - the two need to be talking), and a public discussion is needed to get all these perspectives working together.
Cyberbully-proofing our kids
There are some things parents can do and families can begin talking about:
- Values are key. When I asked Nancy what she'd say is the No. 1 solution to cyberbullying, she said, "Values. Communicating them to our kids. Communicating the fact that the values that you hold that are expected within your family, your community, are the same values they should use on the Internet." And the No. 1 value? The Golden Rule, or ethic of reciprocity (see these pages about its universality at ReligiousTolerance.org and TeachingValues.com) - how would you feel if somebody did this to you? Building on that, other important values might be modesty, respect for self and others, mercy, fairness, protecting one's privacy, standing up for others, etc. - all absent in cases of cyberbullying.
- Bully-proof first. "You can't merely cyberbully-proof your children," Nancy said, "you have to bully-proof them, and the best book I've read on bullying is 'The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander,' by Barbara Coloroso. I think it ought to be required reading for educators and for parents," Nancy continued. "I love her words. She talks about the 'brick wall family' [strict, authoritarian approach, where the child understands the family's values only in the context of adult authority]; the 'jellyfish family' [no stated standards - child is to sort it all out for himself], and the 'backbone family,' [values clearly communicated (the backbone), and the child is taught to think them through and make responsible choices based on them]."
- Understand the Internet together - it's global, public, and what's distributed on it is pretty much permanent/can't be removed. Writing something negative about someone else in a private diary made of paper is different from writing about her/him in a public forum. The latter becomes defamation, and there are laws against that. By thinking they shouldn't read their kids' online journals or blogs, Nancy said, "parents are reinforcing the impression that this activity on the Net is private." Parents and kids should talk about what's being posted on the Web. 1) Kids need to know that they (everybody!) have "valid rights to privacy and a good reputation," as Nancy put it. They need to think about this: "Am I putting anything out there [about myself or someone else] that can be used against me?" 2) Parents "need to understand [and help their kids understand] that they can be held financially liable for their kids' actions. There are laws in almost every state where parents can be held financially responsible for intentional wrongdoings committed by their children."
There's a lot more about legal repercussions and recourse for parents in Nancy's Web site, Cyberbully.org. See also Cyberbullying.ca, by Canadian educator Bill Belsey, who also created the award-winning Bullying.org; and "Stop Bullying Now!" from the US Department of Health and Human Resources and its Youth Expert Panel of 19 people (who had been either bullies or victims) ages 9-19.
Cyberbullying in the news
Email me your experiences with cyberbullying, as a parent, relative, friend, or educator. What you've learned can be very helpful to other readers. The address, as always: email@example.com.
- "Internet Gives Teenage Bullies Weapons to Wound From Afar" in the New York Times (see also "Self-published child porn" in this newsletter).
- "Cyberbullies' torments have much wider reach" in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
- "Rise of the cyberbully demands new rules" in the Christian Science Monitor
- "Internet bullying" in an earlier Monitor article with some stats
- "When kids turn cyberbullies" in Newsday
- "Removing the Bully Factor" at ConnectforKids.org
- "The growing cyberbullying problem" last winter in this newsletter
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Web News Briefs
- Mobile phones & porn
In Europe and Asia, kids' exposure to pornography on mobile phones is becoming as big an issue as their access to Web-based porn is in North America. And it's only a matter of time in this hemisphere, as more and more US families have picture and video phones. Regs are in the works overseas. "Governments in Japan, Germany, Australia, and Taiwan are proposing or passing legislation that requires mobile operators to protect minors from pornographic or violent content on phones and to put controls on cellular chat and dating services," the International Herald Tribune reports, adding that "cellphone operators in Britain have voluntarily adopted a code of conduct and agreed to implement filtering systems by year-end." So far, the problem with Net-connected cell phones, according to one of the Herald Trib's sources, is that there are no password-protected or administrative access controls that parents can put on the phones the way they can on PCs. Phone companies in Europe are beginning to offer some parental controls, and in Asia "the Japanese government has set aside around $2 million to help finance development of new mobile phone filtering technology," according to the Herald Trib. In the US, parental-controls technology for cell phones exists, but the phone companies haven't yet bought in and offered it to customers (for more on this, see my 5/7 issue). Meanwhile, the popularity of "smart phones" - with email, multimedia messaging, camera, games, video and music player, and more - is taking off, the BBC reports. For more on all this, check out London-based Childnet International's hard work on this front.
- Teen-only PC: the 'hip-e'
Hmmm. Will teenagers want a PC just for them called the "hip-e"? That's the $64 thousand-(or million-)dollar question for Digital Lifestyles Group, the Austin- based company that makes it. Like an iPod, it's mostly white and, like a cell phone or an IM service's graphical interface, it has customizable "skins" (e.g., fuzzy pink faux fur, a leopard or graffiti look), CNN reports. To get to a teen level of hipness (after talking with a bunch of teens), the company set out to "Apple-ize" or "iPod-ize" the PC. Quite naturally, the hip- e's a communications hub and entertainment-media tool, not a work station. It's wi-fi enabled (for wireless connecting), can be synched with a cell phone (on the Sprint network) and connected to a video game console, a TV tuner, and a MP3 player/keychain data-storage drive, and it has a huge hard drive for tune and video storage. For young consumers, it includes "a prepaid debit account that teens or their parents can put money into, to fund the cell phone, online shopping, or music downloads." Digital Lifestyles reportedly has done of ton of teen-focus-group testing, but we wonder if teens will go for something actually designed to be cool. The company's smart about this, for sure, though: they know that if the thing's designed for 16-year-olds, 14-year-olds (and anybody younger who's heard about it) will probably want it more. It's pricey at $1,699; the company explains in its marketing message to parents that they save by not having to buy a TV, MP3 player, video player, boombox, and PC separately (if the child doesn't already have most of those things). Here's gadget blog Gizmodo's take, and the hip-e's own Web site.
- Video games past & present
Ever wonder how we got here - to twitching thumbs, PS2- and GameCube-style? Or how they make these games that children (and adults) find so compelling? This week PBS premiered The Video Game Revolution, and there's lots in its companion Web site about all this too. The show "takes viewers back to the early days of the first gamer and provides insight into how the art and economics of the creation of video games have changed over the years," the Washington Post reports. "The PBS documentary features interviews with key industry participants, including Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, Nintendo's lead designer Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of such hit games as 'Donkey Kong' and 'Super Mario Brother,' 'SimCity' creator Will Wright, Microsoft's Xbox developer Seamus Blackley, and Tim Moss, lead programmer for Sony Computer Entertainment. The show's producer, writer, and host, Greg Palmer, discussed his project with people all over the US at the Post site (URL above).
- Pro-anorexia sites: Parents' heads-up
They're community sites, often run by anorexics themselves, in which participants encourage each other to "stay strong" and stick with often false and dangerous weight-loss practices, the BBC reports. Many of the sites offer "advice and handy hints to users to enable them to dupe their [doctors]." Some help participants pair up - meet a "buddy" who can keep them focused on "their quest for the body 'beautiful'" and fend off therapists and others whose aim it is just to "make us fat," according to what experts say about the paranoid mentality expressed in many pro-anorexia sites. Parents may also want to know that a lot of these sites are underground - password-protected - so they can't be found and shut down. UK-based "online counsellor" Greg Mulhauser reports that "there is a growing quantity of material that is pro anorexia on Xanga" in particular. Xanga.com is a blog community popular among teens. For more on Xanga, see "My daughter's Xanga," "Xanga and other hangouts," and "Teens' blog life."
- Teen hackers' exploits
If you believe what he claims, and the police seem to, the 19-year-old in Germany who took over eBay Germany couldn't even be called a hacker. He happened upon some Web sites that described how to do a DNS (domain name server) transfer and "just for fun," he requested a transfer for a handful of sites, including Google.de, Web.de, Amazon.de and eBay.de, CNET reports. Most of his requests were denied, but the one for eBay wasn't. "It is unclear how the domain could have been transferred without the consent of the owner," CNET adds. "The teenager said he did not want to cause damage. Indeed, according to [police], he was shocked when he was told that he had become the new owner of the eBay.de Web address." EBay.de is no back in eBay's hands.
Meanwhile, a real hacker, Sven Jaschan, the 18-year-old who admitted he created the Sasser worm that infected PCs worldwide, has been formally charged with computer sabotage, data manipulation and disruption of public systems, the BBC reports. Sven Jaschan, like the eBay hijacker above, lives in Lower Saxony. If found guilty, Jaschan faces up to five years in prison.
- Teen hotline language: Text
Saying that "96% of young people own mobile phones," a British nonprofit organization called Base 25 has a text-only teen hotline. Base 25 has been testing the service in Wolverhampton since January, the BBC reports, and the majority of the young people who've used it have been boys. Their questions are mainly about "health information, relationship dilemmas and sexuality." According to the BBC, plans are afoot now to take the service nationwide, working with other charities.
- Libraries & filters: Fresh reports
After the arrest of an alleged child molester who was accessing porn in a Phoenix, Ariz., library, the city Wednesday enacted a new policy that "bars adults from unrestricted Internet access to pornography on Phoenix library computers," the Associated Press reports. Before this week, city regulations required libraries to have Internet filters "turned on" at all times in the libraries' children's areas and for patrons under 17 but allowed adult patrons to disable the filters. The AP report cites the view of Arizona's ACLU director that this development will turn into a case that will eventually end up in the Supreme Court. Here's earlier coverage in the Arizona Republic.
Meanwhile, in Portland, Ore., Molly Raphael, director of the Multnomah County libraries, is proposing that all Internet searches by children 12 and younger be filtered unless parents or guardians want them to have unlimited access, the Associated Press reports. Patrons 13-16 could access anything under the proposal, which Raphael said tries to introduce flexibility and a choice for parents. A critic, Stephanie Vardavas, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Library, said that filters "aimed at blocking X-rated material also screened out a link to Shakespeare's complete plays and the full text of Jane Eyre. One filter even blocked a search for the site for the 30th Super Bowl because it was listed as Super Bowl XXX, she said." Library officials' response was that every filter is different.
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!
Anne Collier, Editor
Net Family News
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