Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Real Trouble In Virtual Reality

There is an interesting article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. Written by Caitlin Flanagan, the piece is a book review of several recent books about the Internet and young people.

First, the books Flanagan reviews are: Generation MySpace: Helping Your Teen Survive Online Adolescence by Candice M. Kelsey, a former private school teacher from Los Angeles; To Catch A Predator: Protecting Your Kids From Online Enemies Already in Your Home by MSNBC and Dateline reporter Chris Hansen; and the Internet sites and programs associated with the books, including and Club Penguin.

Flanagan begins with a story. She tells of a most disturbing encounter she had when she traveled, at the age of nineteen, to visit a friend one summer. While sitting at a train station, a young man approached her and struck up a conversation, claiming that he knew her and her parents. He also knew her address and phone number. Flanagan gets a strange vibe from the guy, but they talk amicably while she waits for the train. When it arrives, she boards. The man climbs the steps behind her and whispers menacingly in her ear, “You ought to be more careful about what you write on that tag.” He gleaned all of the information needed to approach her from her luggage tag.

She goes on to equate that luggage tag with the profiles teenagers publish on the website MySpace. The man at the train station had used two things against her: some personal information and her youth. The books and sites Flanagan reviews discuss how the Internet allows all kinds of predators like him to access teenagers’ data.

For anyone who has seen the Dateline show, To Catch A Predator, one cannot help but be amazed at the depth of depravity of the pedophiles caught in Chris Hansen’s web, the stupidity that each one displays, and the ease with which Hansen racks up the numbers of guilty. They enter the staged residences so fast they nearly collide with one another.

For anyone who has not seen the show, but has paid even a little attention to the news, it is abundantly clear that the predators are out there. Whereas, my parents told me never to speak to strangers, it is a different world now. “The Internet has opened a portal into what used to be the inviolable space of the home,” Flanagan writes, “through which anything, harmful or harmless, can pass.

The piece goes on to discuss how Hansen convened a panel of teenagers and asked them directly how many had been approached by someone in a sexual way. “Almost all the kids raised their hands,” she writes. But the shocking thing was that the kids had neglected to tell their parents because they did not want their Internet privileges taken away.

To investigate just how easy this online stalking is, Flanagan tried an experiment of her own. She logged on to the site, Club Penguin, a “safe” place for young people to play games and learn. She developed a relationship with several other players, masquerading herself as a pink penguin. Just as no one knew she was an adult, the other children she played with could have easily masked their identities as adults, too.

She then moved over to MySpace. By simply typing in a local girls’ high school in the search box, the profiles of several students came up. She explored one of the girls’ entries. “I could tell in a minute that this was no fake profile,” she writes. “I taught at a Los Angeles private school for many years, and the associations and places to which she made reference were all of a piece.”

By using the school website and the entries in the posts, Flanagan was able to piece together the girl’s schedule and activities for a given week. She actually went to the school, but is stopped by the brick wall around the campus. Still, she concludes that the place to meet the girl, if she were a predator, probably would not be on school grounds.

Flanagan checks back on the girl’s site several times. An Internet-posted invitation to an outing at a local restaurant with friends would have given her ample opportunity to “run in” to the girl. She also could, using posted pictures, recognize her at, say, a local Jamba Juice store.

She ends the piece by sending the girl off to college, where, using MapQuest, she would not be all that difficult to locate there, only a few hours away. The point she makes is clear: this is a whole new world for stalkers offering ample opportunity to victimize young people, and the teenagers’ very actions in posting on these sites could lead to their own victimization by these opportunists. Often, parents unknowingly encourage the process by not supervising the online activities of their children.

I recognize the validity of what Flanagan and the books she reviews in the article have to say. I can only add that the young people are not the only people who are victims of others on the Internet. Young people often do some victimizing as well.

Last year at my school, we had a situation where a teacher participated in an obstacle course race to be run by a group of teachers against a team of students at a pep rally. Four or five teachers agreed to run the race in the name of school spirit.

During the race, one particular teacher lost her balance and fell. The other members of the team helped her up and they continued the race. Within hours after the rally, a cell phone video of her falling, secretly shot and with obscene and ridiculing language added, was posted on YouTube. When we searched the site, we got additional surprises. All the teachers who had participated had individual videos posted of their portions of the race. We also found several videos of classroom activities, recess and lunch misbehavior, and assorted other images. Most of the posts, like the one of my class, was simply me teaching the class in an animated fashion. My reputation was not damaged by the experience. But the taping was done without my knowledge, and that is what I found offensive and exploitive about the posting. If I had secretly videotaped my students, even in an innocent activity, and posted it on the Internet, I would face at least some criticism and may be some disciplinary action. If I had secretly videotaped my students looking foolish, or in some exploitive manner, I would be in for public censure and may be even a civil or criminal action. The students don’t often see the unfairness in this.

Teachers have a thick skin. Sure, the teachers were upset when they found all their videos on the Internet, but we are adults. More damaging were the postings we uncovered containing images of students taken by other students to ridicule them. In fact, there were a number of disputes and problems among students this year that were made worse, or even precipitated by posting of pictures or video on a website.

We live in a culture where more and more, there is no privacy. Security cameras are everywhere. The fear of terrorism and crime has reached the point where people are willing to sacrifice privacy for safety, although arguably, we may not be any more safe. Technology has also developed to the point where images and audio clips can be captured, often without anyone knowing, and later posted to the Internet for others to see and listen to, and offering no context to the image or the way something was said.

Politicians, teachers, parents, even the students themselves, talk about enacting laws, or recognizing freedom of speech and expression. People often do not see a problem until they are taped or victimized, and then they want protection and legal rights. It is a quagmire. If a terrorist act is foiled because of a security camera, that is good. If someone is videotaped without her knowledge in a store fitting room, and that footage is used in some prurient way, we demand that the law step in and the camera be removed. But we simply cannot have it both ways.

The Internet is a wonderful tool for knowledge, communication, and bridging gaps among people. It can also be dangerous. There will always be deviants out there; they have been with us since crime reporting began. The law should come down on them decisively as it always has. But those of us not in that pursuit must be vigilant and think through what we post on the Internet. Ethics should be considered; the harm we cause others must be recognized and avoided. This takes personal responsibility, something our teenagers are learning. As adults, we must model it for them, and when they breach this responsibility, we must be quick to punish and teach.

The student who posted the poor teacher falling at the rally was quickly caught by the powers-that-be. He came on the school intercom a few days after the incident and apologized to the teacher involved while the whole school listened. It was a very public remedy for a very public and inappropriate infraction.

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