IndyStar.com – April 16, 2006
By Britany Lewis, 16, and Zoë Hayes, 17
“Instruct your children to never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they met online; to never upload (post) pictures of themselves onto the Internet or online service to people they do not personally know; to never give out identifying information such as their name, home address, school name, or telephone number; and that whatever they are told online may or may not be true.”
For information, visit www.safeconnects.netliteracy.org. The high school group’s next presentation is at 7 p.m. April 25 at Carmel Middle School, 300 S. Guilford Ave. These advisories, posted on the FBI’s Web site, are not new to teens with personal blogs. They repeatedly hear this advice from parents and teachers, and often as part of a larger conversation, suggesting deletion of their blogs.
Despite these warnings, kids continue to post their intimate thoughts and photographs online.Blogs, which have been around since the late 1990s, have grown exponentially.
They are high-tech versions of yesterday’s diaries, and kids use them to update friends about day-to-day experiences, announce parties, make confessions of love and spread rumors of the schoolyards. Blogs have grown simply because the technology is easier and faster and no longer requires knowledge of HTML.
“Now, you can do it at the speed of light. You can do really any type of personal content you want. You can put it on a blog and share it with the rest of the world instantaneously,” said Michael Hanley, a Ball State University professor who teaches advertising.
Three years ago, Perseus Development Corp., a Web-based survey research company, reported that 90 percent of blog users were under the age of 30; and that 2.12 million blogs, or 51 percent of all blogs, were created by teens.
In early 2005, the Braintree, Mass., company reported that 31.6 million blogs were created on services such as MySpace.com, LiveJournal and Xanga.com.
Teens in this area reflect the national trend. Zach Ammerman, 16; Matthew Farris, 16; Valerie Coulter, 15; and Danielle Treece, 16, all have MySpace accounts.
And while these teens have heard all the warnings, many believe the dangers will never affect them.
“If you just use common sense, I don’t think there’s any large risk of being stalked or anything,” said Zach, who edits a news-and-opinion blog with fellow Lebanon High School sophomore Matthew.
“I mean, there’s probably a small risk, but it’s just like any risk: Anytime you go outside there’s a risk of a plane crashing on you or something weird, pedophiles and stalkers, people that are mad at me could verbally abuse me online or something. I guess those are the dangers, but I don’t think there’s a huge risk of that happening,” said Zach, who writes regularly for Today’s Awakening.
Others agree and generally believe that parents overreact to the dangers associated with the online activity. Matthew, in particular, wonders if anybody cares about “a 16-year-old boy living in the middle of nowhere.”
Weighing the risks
Valerie says that many students weigh the benefits against the dangers.
“Teenagers especially are in the mind-set that they are invincible. I mean I know I am. You think that it can’t happen to you, so teenagers are a little bit more reckless with their personal information,” said Valerie, who until recently contributed to Today’s Awakening.
Unlike diaries, which are kept under lock and key, blogs have openness in today’s cyberculture that many adults feel is naïve.
“The danger is not knowing who will be looking at it and what their motivations are,” said Hanley. “Let the blogger beware that there are people out there that like to look at blogs and may not be for the reason you want them to look at the blog. If there’s anything that you don’t want somebody in the world to know about you, you should not put it in a blog because somebody could very easily know it.”
Morgan Starks, a Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School junior, agrees, and last summer decided to do something about it. Morgan, who does not have a personal blog, worked with seven public and private high school students to begin Safe Connects, a program of Net Literacy. Their goal is to train elementary and middle school students about safety on the Internet.
The group’s first presentation was offered last month in Carmel for Creekside Middle School parents and students. Specifically, the group teaches students what types of information they should post.
Common sense, most would agree, is the key.
“Everyone has their moral boundaries, so you should be able to understand what you should put on and what you shouldn’t. But obviously you shouldn’t put your name, your address, your ZIP code, your phone number,” said Matthew.
And while they agree about what personal information to post, the teens disagree about the appropriateness of photos. Danielle thinks photos give a sense of her personality. Most of these teens think it is a way to continue relationships with friends and family.
“Mine’s public because I wouldn’t write anything I didn’t want people to read,” said Danielle, a Warren Central High School sophomore.
“Just be aware that the Net isn’t private — anybody can go — teachers, parents, your friends, whoever, strangers. Whatever you write, anybody can see it,” said Morgan.
While some students blog for entertainment, others blog to expand their social network. Kids from smaller communities see blogging as one way to accomplish this.
“You can meet different people that you would never expect to meet. Lebanon is such a small town that just about everybody is either related or very close friends with somebody, so everybody kind of ends up being almost the same. But by meeting other people from different places, you can learn something completely different,” said Valerie
Everybody’s doing it
These teens cite peer pressure as one reason for the rapid increase.
“Everyone that I know has a MySpace, and if you had a MySpace, normally then you blog yourself. And I guess it’s just a lot because everyone is doing it, and probably because it’s a way to talk to people that you don’t get to talk to, or to know what’s going on in someone’s life that you don’t talk to on a regular basis or don’t know that well,” said Danielle.
“I use MySpace pretty much like everyone else in the world, and I blog things that aren’t really very important at all,” Danielle said. “Mostly I talk about the speech team and my friends and things that are going on in my life.”
And adults, too, read blogs, supporting parents’ apprehensions. According to Pew Internet and American Life Project, “Close to 60 percent of teens have received an instant message or e-mail from a stranger, and 50 percent report e-mailing or instant messaging with someone they have not met.
So it’s important that teenagers and even adults monitor their blogs. And while there are some filters for Internet sites, there are limitations for blogs.
Morgan’s advice to parents is simple: “Basically I would tell parents to not spy on their children, but to just ask them, you know, what Web sites they go to and things like that. Just as long as they keep communicating and asking questions they should be safe,” she said.
Luke Hovee, 17, a home-schooled student, doesn’t blog.
“I’m sure everybody wastes their time in different ways. I waste my time on video games,” Luke said. “I have several friends who think (blogging is) just plain evil. I think that it’s kind of boring.”
“I agree absolutely,” said Morgan. “I mean, I see that blogging can be fun and it’s a good way to say in touch with friends, but I think there are better ways to spend your free time.”
Hanley suggests that this is not the first time technology has changed communication.
“It happened 100 years ago with the telephone,” he said.
“It’s just kind of a natural evolutionary thing as it keeps moving forward. Depending on what research service you look at, there are between 20 and 30 million blogs out there today, and they’re adding something like 10,000 blogs a day around the world.”