A Compelling Look at Online Adolescent Behavior, Warts and All
Tonight on PBS, the investigative documentary series Frontline will take a close look at the behavior of young people online. If you’re expecting yet another sensationalized news piece about the dangers of online predators, you won’t find it here. What you will find, though, is an eye-opening, balanced examination of how young people regard the Internet as an extension of their offline activities - much to the consternation and fear of their parents.
Growing Up Online chronicles the lives of students at Chatham High School in Morris County, NJ, exploring how the Internet is totally integrated into their lives. “This is a generation that sees online not as a separate place you go but as just a sort of continuation of their existence,” social networking researcher Danah Boyd says near the start of the film. “It’s socialization, it’s learning about life.”
As the film progresses, you get to meet a number of students and learn about how everything they do is interwined with digital communication. “If I were to disconnect now, I’d probably sit in this chair for the rest of the night; I wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” notes a student named Greg, only half-jokingly. “You need to have the Internet on to talk to your friends because everybody uses it. It’s like a currency. If you don’t use it, you’re going to be at the loss.”
As we get to watch the students using their computers and phones without any letup, we also witness some of their parents struggling to catch up. “My parents, it seems like they don’t know how to work a printer,” Greg continues. “They don’t know how to work the Internet. They’ll come up to, they’ll be like, ‘I don’t know how to get my email,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, Mom, that’s not the email, that’s Microsoft Word.’”
At the high school, administrators and teachers acknowledge how these changes in behavior off-campus must be addressed with new pedagogical strategies. “We can’t possibly expect the learner of today to be engrossed by someone who speaks in a monotone voice with a piece of chalk in their hand.” And our teachers are not doing that,” says principal Mike Lasusa. Teacher Steve Maher adds, “We have to cut through that cloud of information around them, cut through that media and capture their attention…. To walk into a classroom that doesn’t have any of that media must be like walking into a desert.”
For at least one teacher, the constant churn of new technologies has become too much for her to bear. “I feel as though I’m fighting the good fight,” laments Rose Popora. “I’m trying to hang onto what I think is the most important part of what I do. But my time is over. This is too much for me. It’s not at all the educational arena I entered into.”
It’s understandable how some teachers are unable to relate to student online behavior. The Internet, the film says, has led to the largest generation gap since the advent of rock ‘n roll. For example, some students openly talk about the ongoing competition to have as many friends on their social networks as possible, failing to regard the privacy implications. “There was a competition to who could have friends, most friends,” said one girl. “I have 2,000 blah, blah, blah, and like most of them, you don’t even know.”
And it’s not just being overly generous with friending other people. The school has already experienced at least one incident where a fight between students made it to YouTube. “These two girls just went at it,” recalls one student. “And these kids were just busting out their phones and videotaping this thing. You know, why not? Get some memory of it. And someone posted it on YouTube. It was a pretty good video.”
At first, the girls involved in the fight almost sound proud of their accomplishment. “It kind of made us famous,” said Nyala, one of the girls involved in the fight. “People would be like, ‘Yo, I just seen y’all on YouTube.’ Everybody was just going crazy over the video.” But as the conversation progresses, they begin to appreciate the impact of their behavior.
“It kind of happened in a blur,” added another student involved in the altercation. “Like ‘Oh I want to fight you so much, I hate you, I want to beat you up.’ And now when you think about it - damn. My college is probably going to see it, I probably can’t get this or that, everything’s out there. And it sucks.”
“They’re definitely more comfortable being very public than we were,” notes Anne Collier in the film. “Discretion, privacy almost seem like a thing of the past. I think what we take so seriously, they take much less seriously.”
One of the most compelling sections of the film surrounds the Skinner family. The mother, Evan Skinner, is actively involved in the community and heads the parent-teacher association.
“My fear isn’t that I have bad kids,” she says. “My fear is that my good kids will make a bad decision, one bad judgment, and pay for it permanently. If it’s on the Net, it’s open to everyone. There are no safeguards. Someone can always find everything…. The scariest, worst part for me is stalkers. Is somebody becoming obsessed with one of my children?”
The producers of the film then show a series of clips - from CNN, from Dateline NBC - in which the media plays up the threat of online predators. Evan Skinner is clearly shaken by all of this news coverage, but her son Cam is more circumspect.
“My mom calls it being an informed parent,” he says. “She watches Dr. Phil. She reads about all the crime that happens, like date rape that happens on the Internet, like meeting people over the Internet, so she’s always cautious like that. But she’s becoming sort of overbearing like she has tough time getting past that.”
“My parents don’t understand that I’ve spent pretty much since second grade online,” observes another student, a ninth grader named Brooke. “And I know what to avoid, and I know pretty much what can happen. And I think sometimes they forget that because they didn’t grow up online.”
The documentary continues discussing the issue by suggesting that much of the media attention is misplaced. “There has only been one major study into the reality of sexual predators online,” the narrator reports. “Funded by the Department of Justice, the study confirmed what most kids have been saying - that most of them know to ignore unwanted solicitations they receive on the Internet.”
“Most of the sexual solicitations, they’re not a big deal when you actually look at them,” Danah Boyd noted. “Most of it is the 19-year-old saying to the 17-year-old, ‘Hey baby.’ Is that really the image that we come to when we think about online solicitations? No. And I have found kids who engage in risky behavior online. Fact is, they’ve engaged in a lot more risky behavior offline.”
Perhaps the most disturbing story to come out of the entire documentary is from John Halligan, whose son committed suicide after being bullied both offline and online. After his son’s death, Halligan discovered a chat log between his son and another boy in which the two of them discussed ways to kill themselves. Fearing for the boy’s safety, Halligan contacted his parents.
I called the house and got the father on the phone, and I introduced myself to him and said, ‘I’m afraid your son is perhaps thinking about doing what my son had done.’ The repsonse was kind of weird. He first said, ‘Well, I know nothing about computers. I don’t have an email account, so you can’t email this to me…. I’ll have my wife call you when she gets home from work.’ That evening went by, I never got a call. Another day went by - no call.
Four years have passed since that conversation; the family never called him back. “Occasionally he still visits the boy’s website,” the narrator says. “It is full of references of death and suicide.”
Growing Up Online, which airs tonight at 9pm ET, pulls no punches when it comes to discussing the risky behaviors young people are engaging in online. But it also places them in a broader context, examining how their online behavior is an extension of what adolescents have always done offline. It’s also refreshing to see a television production not participate in the “predator panic” that has dominated so much news coverage regarding social networks. Instead, it explores the need for schools and parents to address directly risky adolescent behavior and how it’s exacerbated in a digital environment.
“Sexual predators are a risk, but all the cases, known cases of sexual exploitation involving social networks have involved kids who have gone out looking for a meeting with somebody,” adds online safety advocate Anne Collier. “They were not deceived. We need to start thinking about our kids less as victims and more as participants.” -andy