Growing Up Online
PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio
ANNOUNCER: They are the first generation to come of age on the Internet.
GREG: You need to have the Internet on to talk to your friends because everybody uses it.
CLAY: It's just addicting. I can go on for hours.
ANNOUNCER: They've created their own virtual society.
SARA: When I'm on line posting things, I'm completely 100 percent me.
AUTUMN: I had a whole different persona on line. I was only 14. I looked like I'm 18.
ANNOUNCER: It's a world largely hidden from parents and teachers.
BROOKE, Freshman: You can be more crazy on line because there's no one watching to see what you're actually doing.
TORY: In general, it's pretty bad.
LEIGH: Like, if I were a parent and I saw half the things, I would cry, I think.
JOHN HALLIGAN: My son had these on-line relationships that were completely invisible to me.
BILL TSIGARIS, Morris County, N.J., Prosecutor's Office: Is a predator looking for your child?
ANNOUNCER: But while we struggle to keep up, have we allowed our fears for their safety to run wild?
EVAN SKINNER: They don't realize that when they're sharing on that keyboard, it's, like, let ‘em on in, baby.
ANNE COLLIER, Author, MySpace Unraveled: It's not going to go away. It's not a passing fad. And nobody's really in charge.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, FRONTLINE takes a peek inside the very public private lives of kids Growing Up Online.
NARRATOR: It's Friday night, and six friends are having a party. They've set up camp in a basement rec room, with desktop computers, high-definition monitors and an excess of caffeine. Within minutes, they're locked in battle.
1st BOY: Enemy down!
2nd BOY: There you go! There you go! Die! Oh, man!
NARRATOR: Across town at a local community center, another party is getting started. On one screen, the latest top-rated YouTube video, on another a new heartthrob.
Nearby, in his bedroom, a 13-year-old boy is updating his profile on MySpace.
CLAY: My name is Clay Calamity. I just picked Calamity because I thought it sounded cool. These are links to comment me, message me or add me as a friend.
NARRATOR: Downstairs, his 7-year-old brother is getting a primer in socializing on the Web on Club Penguin.
KURT: He invited me. He said, "If you want to be our friends." I'm his friend now.
NARRATOR: This is Morris County, New Jersey, but it could be anywhere in America. Here, like in the rest of the country, some 90 percent of teenagers are on line, a number that's still growing.
GIRL: My mom is not home. It's 3:00 in the morning. I can be as loud as I want. So that's what we're going to do.
NARRATOR: For teenagers, the Internet is an outlet for self-expression-
1st BOY: Hey, guys, what's up? It's me, Josh.
NARRATOR: -a place to complain about adults-
1st BOY: -my parents, AKA the parental units. Yech!
NARRATOR: -and a means to connect with each other.
2nd BOY: My name's Lorenzo, and I want to be your friend.
NARRATOR: This is the first generation to come of age immersed in a virtual world, outside the reach of their parents.
ANNE COLLIER, Author, MySpace Unraveled: It's really hard to control what our kids are doing on line. What we have here is kind of the new Wild West. Nobody's really in charge.
C.J. PASCOE, Ph.D., Digital Youth Project, UC Berkeley: It's just this huge shift in which the Internet and the digital world was something that belonged to adults, and now it's something that really is the province of teenagers. So there's a proliferation of pictures and videos and them living their lives, in essence, on line.
DANAH BOYD, Harvard Berkman Ctr. for Internet & Society: This is a generation that sees on line not as a separate place you go but as just a sort of continuation of their existence. It's socialization. It's learning about life.
GREG: 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. 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.
NARRATOR: Greg lives with his parents in Chatham, New Jersey.
ANNE BUKATA: He relies on it so heavily. I mean, it's- I don't even think he know that he relies on it. It's just part of his persona.
CHRIS BUKATA: I can be in the same house at my desk downstairs and Greg is doing homework upstairs, and I have a better chance of getting his attention by emailing him because at least I know he'll see it. You go upstairs, and they're in tune to their machine or they're talking to 25 people at once, so it's an intrusion if I go in there.
ANNE BUKATA: You know, you go away on a vacation and they're texting all their friends. There's, like, no break. They're unwilling to be out of the loop for more than, you know, an hour.
GREG: OK, Mom, when I send you a text, go to messages, inbox, OK?
ANNE BUKATA: Which thing do I press to get the message?
GREG: [laughing] Mom, see if you can figure it out. You went to college!
My parents, it seems like they don't know how to work a printer. They don't know how to work the Internet. They'll come up to me, they'll be, like, "I don't know how to get to my email." And I'm, like, "Well, Mom, that's not the email, that's Microsoft Word."
NARRATOR: Greg's father tried using AOL parental controls to monitor Greg's Internet use.
GREG: I could see when he was trying to track me, so I would just bring up, like, Britannica.com, something he would want me to be watching, I don't know, and I would just slide it into the little viewer that he would be seeing. And I would go on my way, do whatever I wanted, he'd think I'd be researching monkeys or something.
NARRATOR: Greg's high school, too, is struggling to keep up with a student body more at home with technology than most of its faculty.
MIKE LASUSA, Co-Principal, Chatham High School: We have to be interactive because they're accustomed to sitting in front of a screen, and they've got five windows up and they're talking to three people at the same time. We've got almost every instructional space in our building now with an LCD projector. We've got smartboards in the classrooms. We've got podcasting. Teachers are broadcasting sections of their classes so that kids can revisit those at a later time. 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.
STEVE MAHER, Social Studies Teacher: We almost have to be entertainers. If you look at the advertising world and the media world that they live in, they consume so much media. We have to cut through that cloud of information around them, cut through that media and capture their attention.
Just having a data projector in the ceiling means that you can show them almost anything that you want. To walk into a classroom that doesn't have any of that media must be like walking into a desert.
ROSE PORPORA, English Teacher: Technology, on the whole, has made me feel like a bit of a dinosaur. You know, my colleagues tease me. There are times when my students know how to do things that I can't do technologically in the classroom, and I just let them take over. And they're naturals.
NARRATOR: Rose Porpora has been teaching English at Chatham for three decades.
ROSE PORPORA: There are more students who struggle with the ability to focus than there were 30 years ago. They are so overexposed to the quickness of things and the immediate responses. It's just all at their fingertips. So when you have to reverse that and have them be quiet and give answers and carve out meaning, I think it's difficult for a lot of students.
GREG: I never read books. I'll be honest, I can't remember the last time I read a book. Nowadays, people are so busy that they need to get summaries of it, like Sparknotes. You can go on. It's a legitimate source. It pays enough attention to detail that you can get the assignment right, and you can read the whole book in a matter of pages. So I read it all on line.
I've actually never read, like, Romeo and Juliet, so I read it yesterday in five minutes. I feel like I've kind of cheated it. I kind of feel like I owe it to myself to read some of these books, but I just know I don't have time. I mean if there were 27 hours in a day, I'd read Hamlet. I really would. But it's only 24.
ROSE PORPORA: There's a rule here at the high school that they're not supposed to use Sparknotes or any other kind of study guide for an assigned reading.
GREG: I guarantee, if you asked 10 kids if they read books, 8 of them will say they Sparknote it, and the other two probably don't even read it. I mean, you know, everyone Sparknotes.
NARRATOR: Some of Chatham's teachers have tried to control cheating by having students complete their writing assignments in the classroom, where they can't go on line and borrow from other sources. For certain assignments, students have to submit their papers to an on-line service called TurnItIn.com, which searches the Web for familiar words and phrases, alerting teachers to any instances of plagiarism.
But not all of Chatham's faculty think the old rules can apply anymore.
STEVE MAHER: You take it as a given that they're going to take stuff from Sparknotes and from other sources like that. The question is how we react to that. And we can react and say, "OK, this is something that we have to fight against." The other way to react to it is accept it as a reality and say that that's how the outside world works.
If I can find someone who's working in advertising and who knows how to push a product and they can collect information from other sources and borrow and steal and put it together and reshape it, isn't that a skill that I want them to have?
INTERVIEWER: Are you saying cheating is OK?
STEVE MAHER: I'm not saying that cheating is OK. I'm saying that cheating is something you have to look at closer to say what is cheating and what's not cheating.
ROSE PORPORA: I feel as though I'm fighting the good fight. 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 the educational arena that I entered into.
[www.pbs.org: Read the teachers' interviews]
NARRATOR: When school lets out, kids flock to their phones or laptops to log onto social networking sites, electronic hang-outs which have largely replaced real ones. The two most popular, MySpace and Facebook, have over 160 million members combined.
BROOKE, Freshman: Pretty much everyone has one. It's like a section of the Internet that is your own. Like, you can make it your personality exactly.
NYALA, Sophomore: Like, everyone has a Myspace. You could find the geeks, the nerds, the popular people, just all sorts of people.
NARRATOR: At the heart of the social networking site is the profile page, the hub of teens' on-line social lives. Here they describe themselves, post photos, receive comments from people, list their favorite bands, and most of all, accumulate friends.
RAJIA, Junior: If I get on it, I won't get off ‘til my mom tells me to get off. [laughter] I just stay on MySpace. Like, you just message your friends and leave comments and picture comments, take pictures, like, pretty pictures, you put it on MySpace and people comment it. MySpace is addicting. Yeah, it is! [laughter]
LUDWIG, Senior: It'll tell you who's in a relationship, who's not in a relationship, when someone breaks up or when someone gets together.
NARRATOR: On MySpace and Facebook, kids vie for who can collect the most on-line friends.
GIRL: There was a competition to who could have friends, the most friends.
GIRL: Yeah, that was the big thing at first.
GIRL: That was huge!
GIRL: "Oh, I have 2,000," blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
GIRL: And like, most of them you don't even know.
GIRL: You don't know.
GIRL: You have 2,000?
GIRL: But you have admit, you really only know about 200 people. Like, you actually met them in person, you know stuff about them. You're only best friends with, like, 50 people. And having 2,000 friends, you're, like, "Oh, she's"-
GIRL: -"a fake" or "He's a fake."
NARRATOR: Social networking sites are also increasingly the place where kids hash out their conflicts. At Morristown High School in the fall of 2006, two groups of girls began trading insults on MySpace.
NYALA: We'd leave comments on their pages and leave messages to them, just talking junk. And we just picked a big fight for no reason over MySpace.
DAVINA, Junior: The whole, like, verbal fighting was all on MySpace, never in front of- like, you know, never in school, always on MySpace. Like, they would never confront us about anything. They kept on and kept on and kept on and they would not stop.
RAJIA: They had left a comment on one of my friends' page talking about me, so I got real mad. So I'm just, like, "OK, you're talking all this junk about me, and you can't say it to my face. I'm right here." And so she got up and we started fighting.
TOM, Senior: These two girls just went at it. You know, they were just, like, beating each other up.
LUDWIG, Senior: Chairs-
TOM: There were chairs being thrown. Security guards. And then kids just busted out their phones and were videotaping this thing. You know, why not? Get some memory of it. And someone posted it on YouTube. It was a pretty good video.
NARRATOR: After the fight, seven girls were suspended from school.
NYALA: It kind of made us famous. People would be, like, "Yo, I just seen y'all on YouTube." Everybody was just going crazy over the video.
DAVINA: Everything happened, like, so not kind of- not fast, but it happened in a blur. Like, "Oh, I want to fight you so much, and I hate you," da, da, da, "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.
ANNE COLLIER, Author, MySpace Unraveled: They're definitely more comfortable being very public than we were. Discretion, privacy, almost seem like a thing of the past. I think what we take so seriously, they take much less seriously.
SARA: I have had, like, relationships with guys on line, but, like, in school or in public, we're not actually friends. Like, we're friends, but it's not, like, "Oh," like, "yo, come over to my house tonight." It's all on line.
NARRATOR: Before she started going on line, Sara was more reserved.
SARA: Like, once I was talking to my friend and he was, like, "Send me a picture." I was, like, "I don't want to send a naked picture of myself because I'm not comfortable with, like, my naked body." He's, like, "Fine, send it with, like, minimal clothing on, and I'll send you one of me." So we were both, like, "OK." So I went in the bathroom and took the picture. And then I uploaded it to my computer and I emailed it to him, and I deleted it off my computer. And it just was, like, something to do. It was, like, didn't really mean anything. Like, it was just, like, a picture.
MELINDA, Freshman: I used to have four pages of myself on MySpace, but I lowered it down to one.
BROOKE, Freshman: In the pictures, like, you kind of want to look hot, but you don't want to look too hot so people think, "Eew! Whore."
NAYA, Freshman: In my pictures, I try to smile on this side because of my dimple.
BRITTANY, Freshman: I like moving around, posing, doing this, doing that.
FRESHMAN GIRL: Model shots.
BRITTANY: Yeah, model shots.
C.J. PASCOE, Ph.D., Digital Youth Project, UC Berkeley: In a way, the social networking sites are this digital representation of what we think of as adolescence. So what teens are doing is going around and trying on these different identities- "I'm a Goth" or "I'm a punk rocker" or "I'm a surfer" or ""I'm this or that." And the Internet has allowed them to display that identity in a very dramatic and very succinct way.
AUTUMN: I didn't want to be known as Jess. That was the last thing that I ever wanted because all it did was remind me of the girl who had no friends, and I wanted to be the total opposite.
NARRATOR: For Jessica Hunter, growing up in Madison, New Jersey, was a series of daily humiliations.
AUTUMN: I never fit the mold. I would try and try and try, and it- it just wasn't me. I was constantly being made fun of. People would push me into my locker. They'd constantly be calling me a Goth. I felt so insecure. I felt like an alien, you know, in this all-white-bread town.
NARRATOR: But on line, Jessica was reborn as the Goth model and artist Autumn Edows.
AUTUMN: Email address, profiles, everything. Everything was Autumn Edows.
NARRATOR: Her parents didn't know.
AUTUMN: I knew that I could not tell them because they wouldn't understand. You know, like, I would lie my ass off just to keep my identity sacred.
ROB HUNTER: She just withdrew. You never saw her. She wouldn't eat with us, she wouldn't- she just disappeared into her room. I would open her door, you know, try to get in. "What are you looking at?" You know, the screen would change. And you know, I was concerned. What's going on? Is she talking to bad people? What's going on here?
AUTUMN: You know, I was only 14, but I looked like I was 18. You know, I'd be in, like, lingerie or something. And more and more, people started noticing, like, "Oh, you're so beautiful. I love this picture of you." It, like, really got big. I was on the computer all day, all day, replying. Like, I would hit the refresh button, and there would be, like, 10 more comments. It was crazy. It was so crazy, but I loved it.
I heard from actual friends of mine that live in, you know, south Jersey. They were, like, "Yeah," you know, "somebody came up to me today and was talking about you." They were asking, "So, like, have you ever heard of this model Autumn Edows?" And they were, like, "Yeah. You mean Jess, right?" And the first one would be, like, "No, her name's Autumn."
I didn't feel like myself, but I liked the fact that I didn't feel like myself. I felt like someone completely different. I felt like I was famous.
[www.pbs.org: More on social networking]
ROB HUNTER: I get a phone call, and the principal says one of the parents had seen disturbing photographs and material. Mostly, it was the photographs of Jessica, and they were considered to be pornographic, as far as she was concerned. I had no idea what she was doing, no idea what was going on on the Internet. That was a big surprise.
AUTUMN: The principal ended up going to my Web site, deemed it completely and utterly provocative, inappropriate. You know, it supposedly offended people. Everyone was calling me a whore, you know, when really, the pictures were- in comparison to the things that I've seen on the Internet, they really were not terrible, compared to, you know, the girls just taking pictures of their butts, you know, just with, like, a thong. And that's what other girls would do, like, all throughout my school.
NARRATOR: Jessica's parents felt they had to intervene.
AUTUMN: And I remember my mother came up to my room. And my computer used to be right behind me. And she stood right behind me and watched me delete every single file.
ROB HUNTER: It was a lesson she had to learn, and the lesson being you don't know who you can trust, you've got to be very careful about where this information goes, and how people perceive these photos or this information, how they can take it and change the context of it and get you in trouble. And it was a tough lesson for her.
NARRATOR: It was all gone as quickly as it had begun- the fame, the adulation, the hundreds of friends.
AUTUMN: I was just completely erased from that- that whole world, that whole realm of the Internet, you know? And it seems really stupid that, like, I'm getting upset over it, probably, to a lot of, you know, people. But if you have something that is meaningful to you, to have it taken away is, like, your worst nightmare.
EVAN SKINNER: My fear isn't that I have bad kids, 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 anyone. There are no safeguards. Someone can always find everything.
NARRATOR: Evan Skinner is the-stay-at-home mother of four teenagers in Chatham, New Jersey, and president of Chatham High School's parent teacher organization.
EVAN SKINNER: There is no lack of parent involvement in this community. It is what is socially expected here. There is a culture of involvement. There's a culture of participation, and so people do.
[www.pbs.org: Watch this program again on line]
NARRATOR: Chatham, New Jersey, is less than an hour from Manhattan by train, but has the look and feel of a small town. Parents here have worked hard to create a haven for their children.
EVAN SKINNER: Our kids are very much the children of a small town in a protected environment. Kids walk to school. There are crossing guards. It's incredibly friendly. You know, it's safe.
NARRATOR: But the Internet, and social networking in particular, has punctured that sense of safety.
EVAN SKINNER: The scariest, worst part for me is stalkers, is somebody becoming obsessed with one of my children. I have two very attractive daughters. You know, some guy that all of a sudden decides that, really, my daughter was meant for him- that kind of stuff scares me. Kids think, "I'm in my home. How could anything bad happen to me?" They don't realize that when they're sharing on that keyboard, it's, like, Let ‘em on in baby, because they're right here.
GREG ABBOT, Texas Attorney General: Parents need to understand there are predators on the Internet who are more vicious than those who used to lurk in parks or playgrounds.
NARRATOR: Media coverage of on-line predators has been building in the last year.
NEWSCASTER: Is enough being done to stop them before they strike?
NBC ANNOUNCER: It's an all-new investigation tonight on To Catch A Predator.
NARRATOR: Congress has held hearings to address the question of predators' access to sites like MySpace and Facebook.
WITNESS: The bogeyman is real, and he lives on the net. He lived in my computer and he lives in yours. He's at home with your children.
CAM: My mom calls it being an informed parent. She, like, watches Dr. Phil. She reads about all, like, the crime that happens, like the date rape or something like that that occurs from the Internet, like meeting people on the Internet. So she's always been cautious like that, but it's becoming sort of overbearing. She just has a really tough time getting past that.
EVAN SKINNER: Did you find your class schedule, honey?
CAM: No. I was going to check that.
EVAN SKINNER: Is that what you're doing now?
CAM: No, I'm talking to Jeff.
EVAN SKINNER: Oh.
NARRATOR: As a way to keep tabs on her kids' Internet activity, Evan has stationed the one family computer in the kitchen, where she can keep an eye on it. But she says she still gets shut out.
EVAN SKINNER: If the kids are on Facebook and I'm making dinner or something, they're edgy. I mean, there are times when I will close the refrigerator door and move in this direction- boom, screen goes black.
BILL TSIGARIS, Morris County, N.J., Prosecutor's Office: Well, good evening, everyone. I'm Agent Bill Tsigaras, computer crime unit. First of all, parents need to take control of that computer. You need to have passwords. Take control of it.
NARRATOR: Evan would like to get the passwords to her kids' Facebook accounts.
EVAN SKINNER: I have an idea of how I can do that with my kids, where I will have them give me their passwords but seal that envelope in some very safe way so that they know that I have not opened that password lightly, but that if they should get into any trouble, if they should disappear, if they should be abducted, that I would be able to break that seal and then get into that information.
CAM: They asked me for the password and I said, "No, sorry, you're not getting it. It's my Facebook. It's my business." I believe that my mom feels so strongly about how we appear on the Internet that she would somehow try to get the passwords, that she would try to open the envelope or anything because she does feel so strongly.
NARRATOR: Cam's sister, Tory, is just as reluctant to share her on-line life with her parents.
TORY: I'd rather not use our computer and just use it at my friend's house than have my mom go into my personal things and my private life and, like, take charge of it. It's my own stuff.
BROOKE: My parents, like, they don't understand that I've spent since, like, 2nd grade on line and that I know what to avoid, and I know pretty much, like, what can happen. And I think sometimes they forget that because they didn't have- like, they didn't grow up on line.
TOM: If someone with a random screenname IMs you and says, like, "Hey, where do you live? I want to meet you," it's pretty obvious, like, this person might be a predator.
NAYA: If someone asks me, like, "Where do you live," I'll delete them as a friend. Like, "Why do you want to know where I live at?" I don't tell people where I live at.
NARRATOR: There has only been one major study of the threat of sexual predators on line. Funded by the Department of Justice, the study confirmed what many kids have been saying all along, that most of them know to ignore unwanted solicitations they receive on the Internet.
ANNE COLLIER, Author, MySpace Unraveled: You know, most kids, they're not looking for trouble. The vast majority are just socializing with their friends at school. And when these weird guys send them a message, they just delete them.
NARRATOR: The study reported that one in seven kids said they had been sexually solicited on line, but researchers found most of those solicitations were mild.
DANAH BOYD, Harvard Berkman Ctr. for Internet & Society: Most of the sexual encounters, most of the sexual solicitations, they're not that big a deal when you actually look at them. 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 sexual solicitations? No. And we have found kids who have engaged in risky behavior on line. Fact is, they've engaged in a lot more risky behavior off line.
ANNE COLLIER: 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. They were not deceived. We need to start thinking about our kids less as victims and more as participants. Real problems, real damage can result because of things that teenagers do to themselves and each other, and that's what we need to be thinking about.
[www.pbs.org: What researchers are learning]
SARA: I'm 16. I just turned 16 yesterday. I'm a swimmer. I have been swimming for seven years. I play golf. I'm really fun and outgoing. I do work hard in school. A lot of the people in my school are, like, "Wow, she's smart."
Its weird because I have this double- I have, like, this one life that's fake, that's, like, all happy-go-lucky, whatever, and then I have the real me. When I'm on line, I'm the real person. I'm completely 100 percent me. Like, I'll talk about anything to these people because I know they won't judge me. Sometimes it makes me feel better because it's, like, "Oh, there's people out here like me," or like, I have a little, like, niche of my own, a little comfort zone. But sometimes it makes me feel worse because I know how many people are suffering like me.
NARRATOR: Sara has an eating disorder.
SARA: I'll go on Web sites. I'll go on forums. I'll look for something called "Thinspiration," which is basically inspiration to stay and become thinner than I am now. And it's just, like, here's other people who can do it. "Look, this woman, she did it, I can do it, too."
[looking at pictures on Web site] She has a personal trainer, but she's probably anorexic or has an eating disorder.
C.J. PASCOE: What the Internet has done is provided these forums for anorexics who want to be anorexic to meet one another. They almost deify anorexia. They call anorexia "Ana" and then elevate Ana to the goddess Ana. They say they're praying to the goddess Ana or they're asking Ana for help. These are women who take pride in their ability to deny themselves food and to keep their weight at this artificially low and dangerous level.
[www.pbs.org: Read the interview]
SARA: I can find ways and tips and tricks to, like, binge or to purge or just starve, stuff like that, that just makes living with an eating disorder a little bit easier, like, what foods to binge on that are, like, healthy and things to do, like, after you purge, so that your throat doesn't burn as much, and things like that.
I'll be talking on line to these people and I'll be, like, the anorexic person that I am. And I'll just go on and I'll see like, "Oh, like, wow, this person hardly eats. Like, mad props to them. Congratulations. I wish I was like that." But then sometimes certain days, it's like the other side of me will kick in and be, like, "This is disgusting. These people shouldn't be living like this. What's wrong with them?" It's, like, like part of me is completely Ana and part of me is anti-Ana. So it's, like, a complete struggle every day.
INTERVIEWER: What do your parents know?
SARA: Nothing. All they know is that I like to eat healthy and I like to exercise. They know nothing.
1st GIRL ON INTERNET: It really helps me to talk about my feelings to someone and know that people are listening.
NARRATOR: Why tell their parents when they have the whole world to talk to?
1st GIRL ON INTERNET: You know, it's better than talking to the people in my life.
2nd GIRL ON INTERNET: [unintelligible] put it out here, it wasn't getting it out, you know? You guys can like what you want.
PARRY AFTAB, Exec. Dir., WiredSafety.org: The Internet is always a willing listener. It's very seductive. You can do it in the middle of the night when you can't sleep. You can do it when you're tired, without any makeup.
3rd GIRL ON INTERNET: I'm really bored.
PARRY AFTAB: And you forget who can see the things you're writing. You forget the impact it may have in your life and on others. To you, it's you and the Internet and the people you want to read it, not necessarily everyone who does. When you combine those things with the immediacy and the power of the technology to allow them to act on impulse, that's when everybody gets into trouble.
NARRATOR: Last January, a group of friends from Chatham High School headed into Manhattan to attend a rock concert. Evan Skinner's son, Cam, was among them.
CAM: However many can fit in Madison Square Garden, there was about that many underage high schoolers going into the city on trains. I was on the train. I was partaking in the fun on the train, as well as- all my friends were. And there was a ton of pictures taken.
NARRATOR: The next day, the kids posted the pictures and videos on line. It didn't take long for Evan to hear about it.
EVAN SKINNER: It was horrifying- open, public, drinking, vomiting, on the trains going in, on the trains going out. I'm talking about hundreds of kids, three emergency rooms around Madison Square Garden who had to close because they had so many kids. Madison Square Garden ran out of wheelchairs to take drunken and unconscious children out of that place.
I found out through one of the parents, and because I was the PTO president, I elected to share that information.
CAM: My mom decided that it was her duty, her civic duty, to send out an email to all the parents in the high school describing the events of the concert and the events on the train. So when parents are reading this, they read, "Your son and daughter, if they went to the concert, they were drinking. And there are graphic pictures of your sons and daughters on the Internet," signed, Evan Skinner.
EVAN SKINNER: Well, my God. You cannot believe the response. I got email from people I didn't know existed. About half of them were, like, "Thank you, thank you, thank you. As a result of that email, I sat down with my child. I had no idea. He took me on Facebook and showed me pictures from the concert. It was absolutely appalling," blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And about half were the full gamut of, "Who the hell do you think you are? You stay out of our lives, thank you so much" to "Are you naive?" And the kids were furious.
CAM: I flipped out when that happened. First thing, I felt I had a right to just because it was, in my opinion, so out of line. Just because of this email, a couple of my friends got in trouble. A lot of people in my school got in trouble. It just really made me mad. I'm just sort of starting to realize how difficult it's been. So my mom and I have had sort of a tough year as far as getting along.
EVAN SKINNER: He has pretty much cut off his family being involved in his life, other than we have dinner. And he doesn't share. He doesn't talk about what he does. He actually said that we had ruined his high school years. I- it's- I mean, I'm choking up just thinking about it.
I have spent almost two decades raising children, saying to myself, "Don't take it personally, don't take it personally, don't take it personally." I remember being 11. I remember being 13. I remember being 16. And I remember having secrets. But it's really hard when it's the other side.
NARRATOR: It's been said that the Internet has created the greatest generation gap since the advent of rock-and-roll.
ANNE COLLIER: I wonder where they'll go next. I wonder what hangout they'll find where we aren't going to be watching, because they'll find it. And there are so many devices they can use to connect, there are so many hot spots and friends' houses and libraries and cafes and school and all these places where they can go on line where we can't control them.
JOHN HALLIGAN: I clearly made a mistake putting that computer in his room. I allowed the computer to become too much of his life. My son had these on-line relationships going on that were completely invisible to me.
NARRATOR: When Ryan Halligan was in 7th grade, he told his father he was being bullied and asked him to teach him how to fight.
JOHN HALLIGAN: Right after Christmas, we got into a routine. We would go down into the basement after dinner and we'd put on the red boxing globes. And we had this conversation one night. I said, "Now, Ryan, you know how to fight. The last thing I want to see happen now is that you now start picking fights at school. I don't ever want to learn that you're now the bully." But I did say to him, I said, "Ryan, if that kid or any of his friends ever lay a single finger on you, you've got my full permission to whale on them."
NARRATOR: After that, things got better. Ryan told his parents the bullying had stopped. But then, in October of 2003, he killed himself.
JOHN HALLIGAN: You know, all I kept saying- asking myself was why. Why? You know, I kept crying, "Why, Ryan? Why did you do this?"
KELLY HALLIGAN: Anybody who would look at him as a child and then have a crystal ball and see into the future as to how he would die, you just wouldn't believe it.
NARRATOR: Just days after Ryan's suicide, John turned on his son's computer, looking for answers.
JOHN HALLIGAN: I started to say, "OK, there has to be something here." At the time, I was concerned about what everybody was concerned about, predators and pedophiles, right? I mean, that was what the media was talking about. You heard the horror stories. I thought, "Well, let me go log onto his AOL account. Let me see if Ryan's friends will open up to me on line."
RAPHAEL: I saw Ryan's screen name pop up and I was really angry, actually. I thought someone was just playing a big joke. And to me, that was not funny at all.
JOHN HALLIGAN: All these instant messages popping up. You know, "Who are you?" "What are you doing?" "This isn't funny." "Get off of Ryan's account." And I was typing back as fast as I could, "I'm Mr. Halligan. Is there anything anybody's willing to share with me that might explain why Ryan did what he did?"
SARAH: We just started talking about what I knew. People would say things to Ryan over the Internet and at school, like, "You're such a loser," and just really mean things.
NARRATOR: Over the summer, Ryan had become the victim of a vicious cyber-bullying campaign. One boy had started a rumor that Ryan was gay.
SARAH: I didn't stick up for him at the time because I thought, you know, it was just that middle school bullying. It happens. But it was real and it really hurt him.
KELLY HALLIGAN: You know, back in my day, if you were getting bullied, it ends at the school yard. You come home and you have your safe haven. But not for Ryan. He came home and did what every other kid did, he went on line, and now the taunts got to continue at home, as well.
NARRATOR: According to Ryan's friends, the tipping point came when a popular girl at school flirted with Ryan over instant messaging, only to humiliate him later by telling him it had all been a big joke. It was a game she often played with boys on line.
SARAH: I guess the fun is, like, dropping the bomb, you know, "Oh, just kidding!" And then that, like, crushed him. I mean, you wouldn't do that to someone's face, but on line, it's completely different. You can do whatever you want and no one can do anything. You're at your house, they're at their house. It's different.
PARRY AFTAB: There's something about reading words. You read it over and over again, and you start to believe it. The words make it real. One of the kids told me you never know if it's your best friend or your worst enemy that's doing this because so much of it comes to you anonymously. So you never know who to trust.
NARRATOR: As the days turned into weeks, John Halligan probed deeper into his son's on-line life. He discovered a folder on Ryan's computer containing a series of conversations between Ryan and a boy with a screen name he didn't recognize.
JOHN HALLIGAN: The two of them were spending a lot of time exchanging information that they were finding on line that had to do with suicide and death. They found one Web site that taught you how to hang yourself, so it gave you how to tie the noose.
KELLY HALLIGAN: There was a Web site that Ryan and this boy visited and they commiserated on, that you plug in your personality traits and what you like and dislike, and then they spit out the best way you can commit suicide.
JOHN HALLIGAN: The most chilling conversation was actually a very short one. Ryan started off saying, "Tonight's the night I think I'm going to do it," and the kid fired back, "It's about blankin' time."
NARRATOR: Two weeks later, in the early morning of October 7, 2003, Ryan's sister found him hanging from a noose in his bathroom. In the weeks that followed, John felt compelled to track down the boy he thought might have been Ryan's co-conspirator.
JOHN HALLIGAN: I approached him on line with Ryan's ID and I said, "I'm Ryan's dad." I asked him, you know, "Were you friends with Ryan?" And he said yes. And I said, "Did you guys ever talk about death and suicide?" And he said no. I just flat out asked him, "So what is you name?" And he gave me his real name. And while I still had him on line, I called the house and I got the father on the phone, and I introduced myself to him and I said, "I'm afraid that your son is perhaps thinking of doing what my son had done."
The response was kind of weird. It was- you know, he first said, "Well, I know nothing about computers. I don't have an email account, so you can't email this to me." And I said, "Well, I'd like to get it to you somehow." And he said, "Well, I'll have my wife call you when she comes home from work." That evening went by, I never got a call. Another day went by, no call.
[www.pbs.org: Read Halligan's interview]
NARRATOR: Four years have gone by now, and John says he never got a satisfying response from the boy or his family. Occasionally, he still visits the boy's Web site, which is full of references to death and suicide.
JOHN HALLIGAN: I had so much unresolved pain and I instinctively wanted somebody to pay for this. I wanted to blame somebody so desperately. Boy. I feel the computer- I can't blame the computer. The computer and the Internet were not the cause of my son's suicide. But they helped- I believe they helped amplify and accelerate the hurt and the pain that he was trying to deal with that started in person, in the real world.
NARRATOR: Across the country, cases of cyber-bullying have been springing up more and more. A few have ended in suicide, most haven't. But it's clear that the Internet has become a new weapon in the arsenal of adolescence, one that's not going away.
PARRY AFTAB, Exec. Dir., WiredSafety.org: [workshop] Let's get going. If someone's been cyber-bullied, what advice do we give them?
We teach our kids to be kind to other people- "Please," "Thank you," opening doors, giving up their seat for somebody who is older. So in the same way, we need to teach them good cyber-citizenship.
TEENAGER IN WORKSHOP: You stop what you're doing, you don't answer back, block the person, and tell an adult.
PARRY AFTAB: We need to teach them good manners on line.
PARRY AFTAB, KIDS: Stop, block and tell!
PARRY AFTAB: We need to teach them how to use the technology responsibly. And if we can do that, we can keep the kids safe.
TEENAGER IN WORKSHOP: Tell them you've been receiving some mean messages, and you want them to stop.
DANAH BOYD, Harvard Berkman Ctr. for Internet & Society: You have a generation who's faced with a society with fundamentally different properties, thanks to the Internet. We can turn our backs and say this is bad or we don't want a world like this. But it's not going away. So instead of saying that this is terrible, instead of saying, "Stop MySpace, stop Facebook," you know, "Stop the Internet," it's a question for us of how we teach ourselves and our children to live in a society where these properties are fundamentally a way of life. This is public life today.
NARRATOR: Soon after Jessica Hunter's parents made her take down her Web site, she rebuilt it. She is back on line as Autumn Edows. Jessica's father is surprised to find himself supporting her.
ROB HUNTER: It took a long time for me to finally say, "Well, you know, this may not be such a bad thing." She found a world that she could live in. And yeah, you find on the Internet what you want, you know? If it's bad, if they're looking to hurt, that's what they're going to look for and they're going to find it. But if they're looking for a way to create or to reach out, that's what they're going to find on the Internet.
AUTUMN: You know, maybe they don't always agree with it, but they do support me. most definitely. And I think that to a degree, they're proud of me.
ROB HUNTER: You know, people say things about the Internet and they talk about the danger. From where I stand, I'm glad it's there.
NARRATOR: After her interview with FRONTLINE, Sara told her parents about her eating disorder. She's started seeing a therapist.
SARA: I want to get better, but you can't just go cold turkey on it. So I hope that it's not my life for the rest of my life because I know I should not be living like this and I can't live like this. But, like, I always look to the next day, but the next day isn't always as good as I hoped.
NARRATOR: Last June, the Class of 2007 graduated from Chatham High School. Evan Skinner was there to watch her son, Cam, graduate.
EVAN SKINNER: Cam and I have gone through some rough times. I think adolescence is just the most difficult time for kids to be kids and parents to be parents. I would say that the loss of open sharing and communication is the single most painful part of being a parent for me.
NARRATOR: Greg Bukata graduated, too. He had made a big decision.
GREG: It'll be hard, but I need to disconnect. I need to just pull the plug on this Internet life for a little bit and see what it's like. Right now, face it, all I do is sit on line when I'm sitting at home.
NARRATOR: At the Coast Guard Academy, where Greg will be attending in the fall, he will be prohibited from using cell phones or the Internet for the first two months. His parents aren't sure he's going to make it.
ANNE BUKATA: I think it's going to be a huge withdrawal for him.
CHRIS BUKATA: I think he's going to have trouble, I really do, because he's never been without it.
NARRATOR: Cam Skinner will also be going on to college. He says he's joined a new Facebook group for his college class of 2011. And he won't be giving his mother the password.
Growing Up Online
PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio
Gerson Rodriguez Jr.
STILLS ANIMATION AND GRAPHICS
Chatham High School
Morristown High School
The Morristown Neighborhood House
DIRECTOR OF BROADCAST
ON AIR PROMOTION
SENIOR AVID EDITOR
Michael H. Amundson
Sandy St. Louis
WEBSITE ASSOCIATE DEVELOPER
WEBSITE RESEARCH ASSISTANT
DIRECTOR OF NEW MEDIA
Louis Wiley Jr.
A FRONTLINE Co-Production with Ark Media, LLC
© 2008 WGBH EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.
ANNOUNCER: This report continues on our Web site, where you can watch the full program again on line, read extended interviews with teachers, parents and a researcher who's studying teenagers and the Internet, get updates on the kids' featured in the program, some background from the producers on reporting this story, and then join the discussion at PBS.org.
Next time on FRONTLINE: In a lawless territory off-limits to the U.S. military and the CIA-
EXPERT: There's enemy infiltrating from Pakistan.
ANNOUNCER: -al Qaeda and the Taliban have regrouped.
RICHARD ARMITAGE, Dep. Sec'y of State, 2001-05: The situation in Afghanistan is more dire than we've seen publicly portrayed.
ANNOUNCER: From inside this secretive land-
RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador, Pakistan: These guys have shown they are not going to quit.
ANNOUNCER: -FRONTLINE investigates The Return of the Taliban.
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