Kids Spin Out On The Web
SHE used to be a pretty-in-pink princess, a ballerina, filling her bedroom
with stuffed toys and posters.
At 14, she's awkward and feels unattractive so adopts an extreme style – pale,
death-mask make-up and black clothing. She looks like a wilted plant.
You can't talk to her about anything much because she's so far into acting the part.
The truth is, she can't describe how she feels – even to herself. She misses
you but has said so many hurtful things she doesn't believe you could or should
really love her any more.
She's overwhelmed by social pressures and schoolwork and she can't imagine any
kind of future employment that would be in the least bit interesting.
This evening she knows she should be accessing the internet to research a school
Instead, she logs on to a website – MySpace, or YouTube – or the free messaging
service for Windows program users, MSN.
Her website identity is deliberately provocative. The photo she supplies suggests
she's much older.
Immediately, the website invites her to meet some "Cool New People". One of them
appears to be dressed similarly and lives nearby. This new friend has other
friends who "invite" her into their real-time conversations. The screen becomes their confessional – more "real" than anything else in their lives.
Her best friend from primary school was an early developer. She's "hot" – part
of the in-group, the kids from various private and state schools in the same
district, who socialise on weekends.
They still prefer to drink at parties rather than take drugs. They're sexually
active without having intercourse.
This group is reliant on mobile phones to arrange social calendars, organise
transport – and photograph and video the events.
This evening our second girl knows she, too, should be accessing the internet
to research a school project.
Instead, she has logged onto a "hosted" website where every service is free if
you can find your way through the maze of advertising.
She downloads a digital recording from her mobile phone. She adds a title page
to her video – "slut", she types – and emails her friends to join her online.
Gleefully, they download vision of a schoolmate performing a sex act. The video
can be accessed by anybody who knows where to find it – and before long it's
been widely distributed among "the group".
The victim is devastated, as are her parents after the school counsellor makes
them aware of the situation. There's nowhere to hide, no chance of relocating and
starting afresh, such is the reach of the media which dominates these lives. If
you don't understand how it works, you can't understand the power it holds.
Mobile phones and the internet provide everything a teenager needs – information,
communication, entertainment and a secret haven from adults.
It is very much their world. They've grown up with new media and they
use it brilliantly.
Manipulation comes naturally to adolescents and this is the first generation
which has been handed such an appropriate tool.
THESE stories are anecdotal, but ask any high school student or teacher and
they'll tell you they're pretty close to the mark.
Well, really, you say. Where's the real harm?
You may like to put that question to the two Adelaide school communities
going about their end-of-year activities with heavy hearts, and the four
local families facing Christmas without their teenage children.
Three students from one high school took their lives this year, as did
another from a nearby independent school.
Death through suicide is never detailed in the media, but it's the reason
police and educationalists are publicising their investigations into "internet
secret societies" and so-called cyber-bullying.
Police believe there may be a link between at least two of the tragedies, aside
from the fact that the kids were all very young, and much loved.
There's nothing wrong with a group of like-minded individuals meeting in
cyberspace – unless they're selling something illegal or plotting violence.
And although it's a criminal offence to post pornographic or abusive images
and messages via the internet, it's hard to investigate and harder still to
Websites ask visitors to declare their ages and identities, but it's
impossible to check their accuracy.
If the law is no deterrent and schools can't control what happens after
hours, we need to look at what's happening at home.
If you have an adolescent, chances are your school will have provided
advice for managing internet access. Did you understand it? Did you dismiss
it out of hand as irrelevant? More information will be distributed early
next year, after government and independent schools meet over the summer break.
Only a brave parent dares to approach the dark tunnel of adolescence.
I'm not being flippant when I suggest you approach via the internet. Arm
yourself with knowledge. Remove the mystery.
When it ends in tears
If you consider email to be the new postal system, Microsoft's free messaging
system, MSN, is the equivalent of swapping notes in class.
My 11-year-old and I installed MSN earlier this year so he could chat with
school friends. It's no big deal, I reasoned; a bit like a conference call.
They'll talk about homework and tell weak jokes.
I activated the privacy option which limited my son's exposure to those whose
email addresses were entered in the computer's address book. But soon there
seemed to be an awful lot of contributors to the conversation.
Were they all from school? Well, a mate's cousin wanted to join in so my son
added his email address to our computer list. The cousin brought in another
friend. So much for safeguards.
It wasn't long before the girls caught on, deftly replacing the boys' toilet
humour with a daily soap opera which ended in tears, of course, after Miss X
took a cruel and public swing at Miss Y.
There were notes sent home and as soon as the adults got involved, the activity
lost its appeal.
But I guarantee the dominant students will find other ways to entertain their
entourages by exploiting weaker characters – be they peers or even teachers.
Free sites such as MySpace, YouTube, Piczo and Bebo offer direct messaging as
well as "rooms" to visit or host, personalised with photos, videos or journals
(blogs), created with the confidence that comes from operating behind a keyboard.
You never have to look anyone in the eye.
I've spent the week exploring hosted sites. I've admired some brilliant creations
and met some dodgy characters – one wearing nothing but a sock on his old fella.
I've guaranteed I'm older than 14 and I will "respect US law" but I could be younger
or someone else entirely.
If you're not sure how to take the trip, most libraries can help you get online. I'm
sure your school would offer some advice. Maybe you could ask your child.
Sunday Mail (10-12-2006)