Uninhibited Online Remarks Full of Risks, Officials Warn
By Tara Bahrampour and Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 17, 2006; A01
No one under 18 would be surprised to hear that teenagers like to post their intimate thoughts and photographs online -- they've done it for years. But school administrators have begun to take notice, and some are warning students that their online activities may affect not only their safety, but also their academic and professional lives.
In recent weeks, several Washington area schools have taken action against the use of blog sites, in particular Facebook.com but also the sites MySpace.com and Xanga.com, which allow teenagers -- and sometimes younger children -- to post details of their lives for all to see.
Sidwell Friends School in the District recently prohibited students from using their school e-mail addresses to register for access to Facebook, a widely used networking site for college and high school students. Before the holidays, Sidwell, Georgetown Day School in the District and the Madeira School in McLean wrote to parents to warn them about use of the site, and the Barrie School, in Silver Spring, recently asked a student to leave over the misuse of a blog.
Exclusive private schools such as these have so far been more aggressive than public schools in specifically targeting the use of blogs, but local public schools have begun to warn parents and students about the dangers of Internet use. Fairfax County will hold seminars on the subject for parents this week, and Arlington County, at the suggestion of a parent who is a computer safety consultant, plans a similar meeting next week.
Meredyth Cole, assistant head of school at Madeira, said officials there were "shocked and amazed" to see how many students use Facebook, which began for college students in 2004 and was expanded late last year to include high school students.
Besides the most obvious danger -- adult stalkers enticing teenagers into face-to-face meetings -- Cole warned that personal information posted online can also be read by college admissions officers and future employers.
"We are trying to figure out how do our school rules relate to this type of behavior," Cole said.
Some colleges have expelled teenagers for violating codes of conduct after discovering photos of underage students posing in front of kegs or writing about drinking binges, and employers often look up job candidates on the sites, said Parry Aftab, an Internet lawyer and the executive director of Wiredsafety.org.
Blogs abound with seductive poses and confessions of love, hate and everything in between.
A girl at a private Washington school who got drunk reports that "the buzz is fun as [bleep], but if you 'accidently' go to far, you'll end up having a very nice chat with that burger you ate earlier floating in the bottom of the toilet." An Alexandria girl with an abusive mother confides that she wants to have a baby, even though it would "most likely make everything 5,000 times harder." A girl from a Fairfax County school posts photos of herself in a bikini, inviting boys to comment.
Ellis Turner, associate head of school at Sidwell, said that the issue came to the attention of administrators only recently, when they became aware of "inappropriate material that was being posted on Facebook."
Sidwell's Upper School recently sent letters home to parents and held a student assembly and a parent meeting on the dangers of students posting too much -- or unwise -- information about themselves.
Personal information can also be used for commercial purposes. A letter from Georgetown Day last month warned students and parents that Facebook can sell information about students to marketers and can use and display their contributions, including photos.
In some ways, the Web sites are the modern equivalent of diaries kept by generations of teenagers.
But lockable journals and triple-underlined threats of "PRIVATE, KEEP OUT!" have given way to instant messaging, reality shows and a cyberculture that many adults find naive at best and exhibitionist and dangerous at worst.
Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that the sites pose new quandaries for educators, including cyberabuse. He cited a recent case in which three middle-school students in the Chicago area were suspended after posting obscene and threatening remarks about a teacher on a Web log. The school community was split over the action.
"It's an open question, because students have been writing these sorts of things for years but have been doing it in their notebooks, where nobody would have ever stumbled across it," he said. "With blogs, it's a sign of things to come -- we're sort of testing the notions regarding free speech."
Tim Trautman, head of Silver Spring's Barrie School, would not give specifics about the reason his school recently asked a student to leave. He said rules forbid students to "use technology at Barrie and elsewhere that defames individual members of any community."
In November, after a student at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring posted derogatory comments about black students on a blog, printouts of the comments were circulated on campus. The student eventually left; administrators would not say whether disciplinary action was taken.
Many schools forbid the use of school computers for anything not school-related. But it is much harder to regulate what students do on home computers.
"We try . . . to say that the boundaries are on school grounds and within school time, but if there is a case that does tend to spill over and directly impact campus life, all of a sudden space and location, the geography of it, becomes less important," Trautman said.
Schools are scrambling to come up with policies on the issue. A Catholic school in New Jersey banned use of the sites even at home, although experts question the legality of such bans.
Use of Facebook is easier for schools to regulate because it requires users to sign in using a school-issued e-mail address. But anyone can start an account on such sites as MySpace, and it is easy to find teenagers' blogs through those sites even without starting an account. Xanga, for example, groups blogs by high school or middle school, making it easy to find one for any teenager who has signed in to his or her school's "blogring."
Ironically, many teenagers are outraged or embarrassed when parents or other adults go to their sites. "I think they see it as a violation of their personal space," said Madeira's Cole. "They feel as if their diaries are being read."
But adults do read the sites. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported 1,224 incidents last year of "online enticement" of children by adults and estimates that one in five children gets sexual solicitations online. Staff members of NetSmartz, an arm of the national center, discuss the issue with local students. Staca Urie, a NetSmartz manager, said that after she gave a talk recently at the Lab School in the District, students raced to their computers to delete information.
And yet to many teenagers, the sites are irresistible.
Aftab said that even teenagers who work with her to warn others about the sites have their own sites. "Why in God's name would you have a Xanga site?" she asked one, and the answer was poignant.
"I'm in seventh grade," the girl said. "It's really hard to be in seventh grade these days. It's really hard if you're shy and you're not a cheerleader or extraordinarily popular. I travel, I take pictures, I write poetry. I'm a nice kid, and if I can write a profile that will make people notice me, why shouldn't I?"
To Aftab, "It's a very sad testimonial these days that a kid has to post something on a site where potentially 700 million people can see it in order to attract the attention of a kid two seats down."
Emilie Jackson, 17, a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria and an editor of the school newspaper, has four or five blogs. She doesn't keep an online diary -- "I never really thought that my life was that interesting" -- but she said it can be a form of therapy. "Being able to share with people, I guess, makes it easier to deal with stuff."
Aftab acknowledges that the sites have their good points: Kids get to show off an expertise or be creative. "A kid with a boring life can go on to MySpace and become a punk rocker in two minutes."
Bilqis Rock, 16, a senior at Springbrook High School in Montgomery County, said she tries to make her page look attractive "so that folks want to come back and look at mine. It's kind of like a little show that I'm putting on, trying to put my best and coolest out there."
Her mother, Melanie Rock, said that she and her husband have talked to Bilqis about smart Internet use and that she is not worried. Rock hasn't looked at her daughter's page.
"She hasn't invited me to look, and I figure it's her space," Rock said, adding, "This offers them a way to have a sense of community."
But it can also be isolating. "They do less face-to-face talking, less phone talking, less playing outside than any other generation, and because of that, the Internet is real to them, but the risks aren't," Aftab said.
Neither are some of the worlds they create. Experts, and teenagers themselves, say that much of what is on the sites is made up.
Teenagers often act online in ways they wouldn't off-line -- bullying each other, posing in underwear, using foul language or sporting guns and Ku Klux Klan hoods.
Increasingly, many teenagers feel pressured to show themselves doing more risque things, even if they are not actually doing them. Aftab cited an example of girls who had blogged about weekends of drinking and debauchery, while in reality they were coloring with their younger siblings or watching old movies with Grandma.
"Even if you weren't out drunk and partying on the weekend, you have to pretend you were," Aftab said. "Maybe parents should be relieved."
Staff writer Jamie Stockwell contributed to this report.