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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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April152008

Gangs, Social Networks and Media Literacy

Around the country, community groups offer free Internet access to young people as a way to keep them off the streets and away from gangs, just as gangs have started using social networks to recruit teens. Are they offering the proper media literacy training to combat the problem?

A few days ago, online safety guru Nancy Willard passed along a link to a news story in Easton, PA taking a look at a local church that had set up a computer lab and opened its doors to area kids. As the story explained, every day after school the church invites young people to come and use the computer lab for free. “You don’t have to pay, just sign up and come here,” said one 12-year-old at the computer lab.

The reporter framed the story as “keeping kids from the net of gangs.” (Get it? Net?) The reporter noted how the 12-year-old comes to the church to use MySpace because he doesn’t have a computer at home and because the local school blocks the site. Meanwhile, the manager of the center noted that some kids come to do homework, but most just surf the Net. The story closes with the reporter saying, “21st century technology to battle the century old problem of gangs. At least the internet has Myspace.”

The story made me nearly fall out of my chair, given how other news entities have lately been examining how gangs are actively using social networks as a recruitment tool, like this story from CBS5.com in San Francisco:

San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer, who speaks for the San Mateo County gang task force, said gang leaders are aware that kids like to socialize on sites such as MySpace and YouTube.

“We’re seeing our gangs and the resurgence of some of the gang members coming back from prison looking more and more to those middle schoolers and the younger kids to recruit them,” said Manheimer.

Manheimer said kids get into discussions in the comments sections of web sites, and engage in everything from vicious threats to what seems to be innocuous chit-chat.

“The type of profiling they’re doing of themselves makes them prey to predators and also at odds with and challenging other gangs,” said Manheimer. “So, we’ll see something start on the Internet, and actually turn into an assault or a gang fight that actually results out of Internet profiling….”

…A YouTube spokesperson who asked to remain anonymous e-mailed CBS 5 the following statement: “YouTube does not allow videos showing dangerous or illegal acts which is clearly stated in the community guidelines on the site.”

“Also, real violence on you tube is not allowed,” the statement continued. “If a video shows someone getting hurt, attacked or humiliated it will be removed.”

The spokesperson said YouTube does not control content, and that they rely on users to police the site and flag inappropriate material. Youtube staff later reviews the material and removes content found to violate the community guidelines. “Our community polices the site and this has proven very effective,” the YouTube spokesperson wrote.

So far, I haven’t seen any studies offering detailed evidence regarding how widespread online gang recruiting actually is. No doubt it’s taking place, but I wonder if the recent media hype is akin to the predator panic stories we also see in the news - stories that make online predation seem much more prevalent than it actually is.

Whether it’s a widespread problem or a minor one, it’s an issue that needs to be examined - by parents, by schools and by community centers like the one in Easton, PA. From the looks of that particular story, I wonder if the church has given any thought to how giving kids free access to MySpace without pairing that access with media literacy training might actually be counterproductive. It would probably serve that particular computer lab well if they got involved in CTCNet, the national association of community technology centers. CTCNet members have many initiatives specializing in media literacy programs for at-risk youth - lessons that could be put to use by computer labs like the one in Easton, as well as by schools.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy the church has set up a computer lab. It’s community entities like churches, Boys & Girls Clubs and libraries that are on the front lines of bridging the digital divide. But like I’ve been saying for many years now, the digital divide isn’t simply an access issue. We must address technology and media literacy needs as well. Otherwise, we’re just opening the door to an environment in which many young people are simply unprepared. -andy

Filed under : Media Literacy, Safety

Responses

“But like I’ve been saying for many years now, the digital divide isn’t simply an access issue.” True indeed.

But as you also say, this (newer) access point to gangs must also be better understood and countered.

This is a truly interesting matter you are considering here. I would never guess that gangs are now also into media and have started using social networks to recruit teens.

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