The producers of Growing Up Online discuss the making of this report and what they learned about -- and from -- the Internet generation.
Rachel Dretzin co-produced, co-directed and wrote Growing Up Online. Her previous reports for FRONTLINE include A Hidden Life, The Merchants of Cool and The Lost Children of Rockdale County, all produced with her husband Barak Goodman. She and Goodman have three children, ages 9, 7 and 4. Read her full bio here.
John Maggio co-produced and co-directed Growing Up Online. He has produced, with Barak Goodman, several films for PBS' American Experience, including The Boy in the Bubble, Kinsey,The Fight and The Lobotomist.
Caitlin McNally worked as associate producer on Growing Up Online. Previously, she served as associate producer on FRONTLINE's A Hidden Life, and she co-wrote and edited FRONTLINE/World's Congo: On the Trail of an AK-47.
How did you become interested in this subject?
Rachel Dretzin: What piqued my interest in this subject was a story a friend told me about her 13-year-old nephew -- a spectacularly bright and sensitive boy who is known for his kindness and modesty. Unbeknownst to his parents, he had started a blog, which they only learned about when another parent called to warn them. Evidently, this boy had made an offensive racial comment about another kid in his grade. When my friend and her husband read what he had written, they were shocked. They didn't recognize their own son, whom they felt they knew well, and could hardly believe he'd written the words they saw on his computer screen.
When they confronted him, the boy was mortified. As they talked about it, it became clear that the supposed anonymity and immediacy of the Internet had led him to say things he never would say in "real" life -- and didn't even mean. It was a game, an exercise, a way of trying on identities.
That clicked for me. I had just completed a program called A Hidden Life, which told the story of Jim West, the Republican mayor of Spokane, Wash. West was outed by his local newspaper in an online sting operation. The paper hired an outside consultant to pose as a 17-year-old boy on a gay Web site they had reason to believe the mayor frequented. After some time and resistance, the boy had lured the mayor into intimate conversation over instant messaging. The newspaper published the mayor's online conversations with the boy. Although they had never met in the flesh -- in fact, the boy had never really existed -- the mayor was publicly humiliated and voted out of office.
I had always believed that the things Jim West had said and done online were very different than the things he would say and do in real life. I found the interplay between online identity and actual identity increasingly interesting, and I wondered how it played out in adolescence, a time when identity is profoundly in flux.
As you said, that earlier report touched on the online predator issue, and yet this report seems to conclude that cyberbullying is perhaps the more prevalent danger. Were you expecting predators to be a bigger concern when you started researching this report?
Dretzin: Absolutely. Like many parents, I believed my primary responsibility when it came to Internet safety was to tell my children never, ever to give out their real name or address to anyone online. If they didn't do that, I surmised, I could relax. I assumed that the biggest danger to my kids -- to all kids -- was the threat of online predators.
One of the biggest surprises in making this film was the discovery that the threat of online predators is misunderstood and overblown. The data shows that giving out personal information over the Internet makes absolutely no difference when it comes to a child's vulnerability to predation. Also, the vast majority of kids who do end up having contact with a stranger they meet over the Internet are seeking out that contact, at least at first.
Most importantly, all the kids we met, without exception, told us the same thing: They would never dream of meeting someone in person they'd met online. As a matter of fact, we had trouble making contact with kids online during our research. Most kids we approached were suspicious and loath to respond to requests for an interview over the phone. We tried everything -- links to our Web site, offers to send copies of films we had made -- but kids are conditioned not to talk to strangers online. It was oddly reassuring.
Now, when I think about my three children going online, I think much more about how the virtual world will affect their social and emotional lives. I think about them saying something online they later regret or being hurt by something someone else says. I worry about them seeing something -- a piece of video, a photograph -- that they may be too young to see, and I worry about them becoming too accustomed to clicking a button and getting an instant answer. These are things I never gave much thought to before, but having reported this story, I feel more armed for the real problems they may face and more realistic about the threat of predators.
How did you find the kids featured in the program?
Associate Producer Caitlin McNally: We started in Chatham and Morristown, N.J., in the high schools that eventually opened their doors to us for filming. We would meet with small groups convened by the school, or we would sit in the cafeteria at lunch and in the halls between classes and talk to kids who passed by. Our questions would start with, "When did you first start going online?," or, "How much time do you spend online?," and that would almost always kick off a lively conversation.
I think kids were generally excited that a bunch of adults wanted to listen to stories about their lives online, especially adults who weren't parents or teachers. We unleashed from them a flood of anecdotes, vocabulary and intricate rules and hierarchies. We repeatedly heard the Internet language that has become ubiquitous: LOL, BRB, POS (parent over shoulder). We learned about alliances, indignations, imaginative creations and secret friendships online. One girl described to us, with great confidence, a long-term and serious online relationship with a boy she had met only twice in real life. It made me think about the sheepishness and discomfort with which a lot of adults talk about meeting a date online.
Despite the research we did, I don't think I was prepared when we started talking to kids for the extent to which the Internet and other electronic communication has permeated all aspects of being a teenager. Almost every kid expressed the utter importance of being connected with friends all the time and how unthinkable a life without that connection would be. I think a lot of kids were bemused by our list of questions about "life online," because they don't sit around thinking about the Internet in their lives. It's just there, always, another tool for them to use or place for them to go.
After surveying a lot of kids and beginning to get a grip on how and why they use the Internet, we searched for kids who could really express how the Internet has affected them in profound way. There was no science for finding these kids. In fact, a couple of times, their stories found us. I met Autumn Edows after her boyfriend came up to me in the parking lot of a Burger King where a lot of Morris County kids hang out. He told me his girlfriend was a famous model online with a fan base and a pseudonym, and that she had completely created herself through the Internet.
And what was the process like of taking those kids' stories and bringing them together?
John Maggio: When we started our research, Rachel and I really wanted this film to be from the perspective of kids and parents and not experts. And as it turned out, there has been very little research done in this area because the phenomenon of social networking is so new. We found ourselves in the forefront of a new area of social research, and we were acting like anthropologists doing field research. As we started meeting kids were struck by the fact that they alone were creating this new virtual society -- outside the purview of parents and teachers.
The kids we met were incredibly forthcoming about their online lives. By the time we finished our reporting we had a collection of great stories, but the hard part was trying to stitch them all together to create a coherent narrative. That is always the most difficult part. We wanted the film to represent exactly what we saw over the course of many months in the field, so throughout the edit we were constantly checking ourselves to make sure that we were staying true to this.
I think we were lucky in that we had a solid core of stories that we could draw from and that each story informed the next. We didn't have to leave much on the edit room floor. Even as we addressed online predators and education, we were able to rely on our interviews with teachers and kids to flesh out these broader ideas. I think in the end we were able to capture the essence of all of our characters' stories and offer up a truly honest portrait of kids growing up online.
There's a lot of "user-generated" media in the film: photos and videos that kids have posted online. How did you go about sorting through that content?
Maggio: When we started searching for images from public social networking sites and YouTube accounts to use in the film, it felt pretty much like jumping into an ocean. It's really difficult to sum up the vastness of what's out there online -- the incredible amount of pictures, videos and words posted constantly by every conceivable type of kid. Building an archive of this material was dramatically different from traditional documentary archival research. It was all just a matter of plunging in and digging around, with no structured method or tactic.
Caitlin spent many days and nights sifting through vivid, visual details of kids' private lives. I think we all would admit it was fairly impossible not to wrestle with the occasionally voyeuristic feeling. As some experts and kids point out in the film, we adults didn't come of age in an era when it was culturally acceptable to pour your most private self, or parts of it, out into an anonymous universe. The kids whose pages we looked at and pulled from did grow up in this way, and it's a startling thing to see when you really start looking.
While there is certainly an abundance of stories about the dark and potentially dangerous places kids can form for themselves online, there were a lot of online kids we came across who seemed to really benefit from reaching out over the Internet. There are of course the well-publicized accounts of viral online fame via You Tube or MySpace, but next to those who actually get discovered, we came across literally hundreds and hundreds of heartfelt, funny and deeply personal accounts of teenage life from tons of regular kids.
As Parry Aftab talks about in the film, you can get online and bare your soul whenever you want -- in the middle of the night, when you look and feel horrible, when you're ecstatic and brimming with news, or when you're just bored -- and someone is always listening. To tune into that cacophony for awhile was like meeting 10 times the number of kids we actually interviewed for the film. After we got over the initial shock that a lot of kids really are willing to reveal so much so publicly, it was a fascinating chorus to hear.
The report mentions that the Internet has created the greatest generation gap since rock 'n' roll. Caitlin, you're in your 20s; did you experience that gap while working with these kids?
McNally: More than once, I'd be trying to follow up with a kid and I would discover pretty quickly that the only way I could elicit a response was through a text message or social networking site. I would place call after call, or send e-mail after e-mail -- nothing. But with a text, or a message on Facebook, a response would ping back within minutes.
This phenomenon was a surprise; it made me feel old-fashioned -- and old. I thought my experience would resemble that of the kids more than their parents, as I'm not a parent yet and certainly still empathize with being someone's child. The majority of teenagers we talked to expressed good-natured exasperation that their parents "didn't know how to work a computer" or barely understood text messaging. I was confident that because I'm completely comfortable using a computer, e-mail and a cell phone, I'd relate pretty quickly to how the kids we met communicate online. This was not the case.
Writing an e-mail for a lot of the kids we talked to is equivalent to sitting down and hand-writing a letter for me. They described e-mail as a slow, archaic way to keep in touch with your aunt halfway across the country or apply for a summer internship. Even the most articulate kids who aced all their English classes could switch effortlessly into IM or text-speak; quick, pithy, shorthand Internet language was second nature to almost all the kids we met. They're bilingual, and they intuitively understand an entire culture generated by the Internet, with customs and vocabulary that we had to learn step-by-step.
Maybe even more striking to me was how social networking sites have become fully integrated into kids' lives. I didn't build my first profile until after college; it felt underground and novel, like being in on a joke. I'd never even heard the term "social networking." Having a profile on the Internet was ancillary to my "real" life, while for the kids we met, it has become a fundamental element of what they do each day and how they represent who they are.
When I built profiles [to communicate with kids] as we started working on this program, it was incredibly strange at first to find people from my own life popping up alongside my budding list of friends from New Jersey high schools. Anne Collier [president and editor of NetFamilyNews] talks about how the Internet has fundamentally changed our notions of privacy. While the vast majority of kids we came across were absolutely comfortable posting their pictures, thoughts and conversations online, I felt acutely self-conscious about every word I typed that would show up on a site.
This is where the generation gap was most palpable for me, and a senior at Morristown made me realize it. A lot of kids we met talked about taking pictures of yourself for your profile page using what they called "the angles": You hold a camera -- often your cell phone -- at arm's length, pose, and snap a head-shot. After learning this, I logged into my Facebook account one day to find a new comment on my profile picture. It was from the Morristown senior, and it read: "Someone's got the angles..." Needless to say, I was completely mortified.
You filmed in two high schools in two different communities. What differences did you see in how students at both schools used technology?
Dretzin: The gulf between schools in terms of their use of technology is so vast that there was no way we could restrict ourselves to filming in only one high school. Chatham High, for example, is an affluent school with a highly educated parent body and a committed PTO. As you see in the film, the school has thoroughly integrated technology into its curriculum.
At the other end of the spectrum are schools in less affluent districts, like Morristown High. Morristown has the technology but lacks the time or the resources to educate its faculty on how to use it. This is a widespread problem: Most teachers across the country are in their 40s and 50s, and this technology is still foreign to many of them. It's a challenge to bring them up to speed. Just having a bunch of computers available in the classroom isn't enough.
Before we started this project, I assumed, as I think most people do, that the phrase "digital divide" referred to the gap between the haves (those with easy access to technology) and the have nots (those who don't have access). In fact, the digital divide is less about having access than it is about using the access that's available.
McNally: In Morristown, we spent time at a community center near the city's housing projects. We wanted to find out about the role the Internet plays in the lives of kids who may not have computers or Web access at home. The digital divide hasn't turned the Internet into a place for the resource-rich alone. Even if the kids we met didn't have Internet access or a computer of their own at home, they found another way to get online -- at the center, at the library, at a friend's house.
The boy at the center who watches the YouTube video in the beginning of the program wants to be a dancer when he grows up. He was on YouTube practicing pretty much the entire time we filmed, and he was able to concentrate fully despite the chaos around him as kids jumped from computer to computer.
There seems to be a real difference of opinion between the teachers you spoke to as to whether technology is good or bad for kids' education and development. What are your thoughts on that issue?
Dretzin: I was often amazed when reporting this story at the opportunities that technology affords kids when it comes to learning and education. Classes that once were taught by a teacher standing in front of a blackboard are now multimedia experiences, complete with music and video. Kids can pursue their interests and curiosities so much more easily on the Internet; kids who learn better with visual cues can do so now; information is so much more accessible. By and large, that is a really positive thing.
However, there are things to be concerned about. One of the teachers we interviewed described it this way: Kids' knowledge is broader but also much shallower than it used to be. Kids seem to know a little bit about a lot, but they're so impatient, so used to moving quickly, that they cannot handle the deep, probing, complex thinking that is the key to true mastery. That's troubling.
This report and some of your past FRONTLINEs -- The Merchants of Cool, The Lost Children of Rockdale County -- have focused on children. What are the challenges of reporting on sensitive issues involving kids?
Dretzin: Reporting on children is tricky. Kids are drawn to cameras, and instantly comfortable in front of them. There are times when they say things in front of our cameras the consequences of which they don't fully understand. There have been several times that kids have confessed something to me, with the camera rolling, that their parents -- who are often sitting in the next room -- don't know.
Each time it happens, I have to do some soul-searching to figure out where and how to draw the line and when to involve parents. It's tough, and it sometimes can require going beyond the boundaries of reporting on adults. I've had to ask myself as a parent what I would want for my own child, and I've had to get more involved in the lives of my subjects than I would on other sorts of projects.
Sara, the 16-year-old girl who talks about her eating disorder in the film, was one of those subjects. Without going into detail about Sara's story I will say, since it's already in the film, that when Sara told us about her eating disorder, her parents were not aware of it. Subsequent to our interview, and with some involvement on our part, Sara did talk to her parents and was able to get some counseling. It wasn't an easy situation, but I think we all handled it as best we could.
Finally, Rachel, what do you take away from this program, both as a producer and a parent? Has reporting this story changed the way your view your kids' use of technology?
Dretzin: To my great surprise, I've found myself being more liberal about the time my own children spend on the Internet than I was before I started reporting this program. They're living in a wired world. There's no putting the genie back in the bottle, and their lives will only benefit from learning how to use this extraordinary technology wisely and well. But I do think that when my children reach adolescence (my oldest is almost 10) I'll be much more vigilant as a result of what I've learned working on this program.
There is an age -- and I'm sure it's different for every kid -- when children are simply not emotionally mature enough to handle the social Internet without adult guidance. While teenagers need privacy, I want to be sure my own kids are ready for privacy online before handing it to them. The risks of them losing their way are just too great.