Facebook, Twitter, Formspring…The fast-paced world of social networking has an ever-evolving language and set of rules. Here’s what you need to know.
Illustration By Matt Collins
Illustration By Matt Collins
First it was the texting. Then came the sexting. Now it’s the cyberbullying that is really putting stress on the Youth Bureau at the Stamford Police Department. Kids are literally killing themselves over it.
For a while the main worry at Stamford PD, where Sgt. Joe Kennedy runs a task force known as Stamford Internet Crimes Against Children, was the predators—the so-called “Internet Travelers” who sought to meet up with kids. “If we had the manpower, we could go online twenty-four hours a day and just keep setting these stings up,” sighs Kennedy. “It’s really, really crazy.”
But now the calls flooding the office concern cyberbullies. Mean kids have always been with us, but incidents in the last year have struck a national chord:
• Phoebe Price, fifteen, a recent immigrant from Ireland to South Hadley, Massachusetts. Targeted by a local crowd of mean girls, the harassment moved from the Internet to the streets and got so bad she was driven to suicide. Even after she was gone, the mean girls kept at it. When a memorial page for Phoebe was created on Facebook, some kids logged on expressly to add more taunts and sneers. This intransigent cruelty may have been the reason that the loc-al district attorney slapped nine of the tormentors with a variety of charges last March.
•Alexis Pilkington, seventeen, a senior at West Islip High in Long Island, fell victim to Formspring, the latest site to cater to anonymous broadsides. A pretty, popular girl headed to college on a soccer scholarship, she was overwhelmed by the horrific abuse leveled at her on the site and took her life. Again, online tribute pages were defaced by the profane few.
Clearly something has been happening to the American conversation. The children have surely heard the endless wave of brutal sarcasm blazing from so many television shows and political discussions. From Nickelodeon and MTV to the cable news shows, the operational tone is the same—cynical disdain. It has almost become the way America thinks. Curiously, it isn’t the way America behaves face to face. In the workplace, good manners and respect are all but legally required now. But when voices go electronic—digitized and amplified—the furies emerge.
“The bullies aren’t a problem,” said one thirteen-year-old. “If someone sends a nasty message, you just copy it and show it to others. And if it’s anonymous—who cares what they think?”
If every kid were so levelheaded, we’d still have Jesse Logan with us. The pretty blonde Ohio girl sent a suggestive picture of herself to her boyfriend, who promptly put it into worldwide circulation. The months of abusive teasing that followed—her mother likened it to “torture”—led her to end her life.
By the way, you can read a hundred stories about Jesse today, but you’ll never read the name of the boyfriend. No wonder the police are now getting involved. “It’s the biggest problem schools are having right now,” says Kennedy. “It’s just out of control. These cases are taking up a lot of man-hours in our unit.”
The cases invariably follow a certain path. Two kids have a falling out. The rapid-response system of texting leads to a jolly fireworks display for others to share and gawk at. And since the conversations between the injured parties are not happening face to face, the threat level can very quickly escalate into the irrational.
“It gets pretty nasty,” Kennedy sighs. “The cases are serious because the victim doesn’t know where to go for help. They really feel like they’re being piled on. We’ve seen several responses on sites like Facebook where the kids just continue to get nastier and nastier. And then the kids will be confronted in school by kids who weren’t involved in the original incident.”
Facebook. If it seems to be everywhere, it is. The social net-working site claims to have more than 400 million subscribers worldwide. Along with the ubiquitous cell phones with their all-day text-messaging powers, it has created a new kind of digital fluency. Professor Larry D. Rosen, author of the new book Rewired, calls the kids born in the 1990s the “iGeneration,” in contrast to the “Net Generation,” those old fogeys in their twenties. The iGeneration has essentially grown up blitzing messages back and forth. Multitasking might actually be their natural state of mind.
Which makes it so very easy for our kids to do something silly with the high-tech phones we give them. Pose for a picture, snap it, email it—all done in a matter of seconds. Will that same photo be the centerpiece of a website de-voted to photos of ex-girlfriends and tomorrow spotlighted in the daydreams of the loneliest guy in Kyrgyzstan? Well, possibly, now that you ask.
Not your daughter, you say? A survey of teenage girls published in Medscape’s Public Health and Prevention Journal, conducted by Dr. Mary Muscari, a researcher at Long Island’s Binghamton University, found that 20 percent of teens had either sent or posted online nude or seminude photos or videos of themselves.
Further changing the rules of dating—speed dating to be precise—is the latest online playground for young romantics, Chatroulette, which was started by a Russian teenager. In it the image of your face is taken by your computer’s camera or Skype lens and beamed randomly to other subscribers. If this perfect stranger, who might either be in Iceland or Altoona, chooses to talk with you, you might get some random talk—or a startling flash of body parts. Or you’ll get rejected as they click the “next” button and go on to another live one, hence the term “nexted.” (Note: cheating via text is called chexting. Putting a curse on someone is hexting.)
Nobody knows more about these distractions than the schoolteachers who stare at the kids’ wandering eyes everyday. Many teachers think the presence of phones and PDAs is a nightmare, if for no other reason than their use for cheating in class.
At Westhill High, principal Camille Figluizzi likes to point out that technology also brings with it a lot of new advantages. She only wishes her school could afford more computers and devices. “We’ve just passed a policy that will allow kids to get high school credits for taking classes online. There are some high-level math classes and some advanced placement courses available.”
For all that, the tight grip of electronic devices on the lives of kids sometimes makes her feel “powerless,” she says. “Because it’s a hard thing to wrap your arms around.”
The music players, for instance. On the buses, she says, about 90 percent of the kids are plugged in. “They’re allowed to wear their iPods in the morning before classes start, and you’ll see six or seven kids sitting at a table, all plugged in, not even communicating at all. Now, I understand that morning is a difficult time for teenagers, but one would think it’s just more normal to socialize. But they don’t.”
The texting mania is, of course, something that irks the blue hell out of a lot of teachers, and many question why kids should have phones in school in the first place.
“You would think,” says Figluizzi, “that parents would know that kids can’t use cell phones in school. And yet it’s very common for parents to text their kids or try to call them! You walk by a child and he’s in corner going, ‘Yeah, Mom.’”
Like every educator, Principal Figluizzi is adapting to what might be called the New Normal. Last year her son was invited to the prom by a girl—via a text. “He saw nothing strange in it,” she smiled.
THE NEW RULES
We’ve all noticed that somebody keeps changing the book of rules. It seems to happen overnight, too. What used to be regarded as proper manners with an electronic device suddenly becomes passé. And just when you think you have it all figured out, the rules change again.
Take the office meeting, where the legal pad full of doodles has been replaced by open laptops all around, not to mention the private conversations getting beamed back and forth across the conference table via PDAs. That is, unless the boss forbids the BlackBerry on the table, and then you’ll have to sneak it in on your lap like a furtive school kid. And the boss better get used to it, because those kids who have perfected the art of texting while walking, are headed for the job market.
That is, if they don’t meet the fate of Alexa Longueira, the fifteen-year- old Staten Island girl who last summer walked into an open five-foot-deep sewer while texting. Fortunately, she was only banged up. Many a highway driver/texter has not been so lucky.
For all the horror stories, many educators say it’s not all bad. One teacher points out how the new electronic media helped students in Iran expose the excesses of Ahmadinejad’s regime. Rippowam Middle School teacher David Beebe points out that a local community group created a Facebook page to alert people to branch-library closings and to sign petitions. “There are some positive aspects that people don’t see,” notes Beebe, who’s also the library media specialist. “We network with other schools around the world. And we don’t have to use Facebook—there are other, safer sites, like ePals, which is just schools. Part of the problem with Facebook is that it’s so huge, anybody can feel like they’re anonymous.”
Stamford school computers are fortified with filters to block the use of Facebook, among other sites. And while school officials can’t control what happens at home, they can sure remind kids of the dangers. “We make them aware that information never goes away. And it can all be eventually tracked down to you,” says Beebe. The hardest thing to impress upon kids, he thinks, is “how they can hurt people from afar.”
The schools, of course, are helping to speed up the new electronic age by teaching the kids how to construct blogs and podcasts. At the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering, students are issued laptops. According to Principal Paul Gross, the students have to sign an agreement that these computers won’t be used for any foul ends. For most of the student body, that works out splendidly. But there are always a few wisenheimers, and Gross felt forced to send a quite emphatic letter home to parents last spring advising them to control what kids do online.
“I always deal with it, one time encouraging parents to call the police,” says Gross. “We make daily announcements on cyberbullying, and all my teachers have been trained in using software management that allows them to see where their [students’] computers are turned on to in the classroom.”
Like all the educators we spoke to, he expects parents to take ownership of their roles. “I have no choice but to [consider] parents as collaborators with me in understanding if what their children are doing is inappropriate or harmful. It’s dangerous and it’s everlasting. Because once it’s out there, it’s out there.”
As heated as Gross’s message has been, it doesn’t go as far as the New Jersey principal of Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, Anthony Orsini, who thundered recently that children should be banned from electronic socializing.
In his office at Stamford Police headquarters, Sgt. Kennedy only nods in agreement. And he doesn’t want to hear any parent say, “What if there’s another 9/11?”
The police have had to become experts at computer forensics. Kennedy’s team has shown up at homes demanding to go through computers to find the bad stuff. (People might think they have deleted the bad things, but the computer guys know how to fish them out of lost canyons in the hard drive.)
Even the texting tough guys who send bullying messages via phone are not safe—they will get their phones frisked. “We’ll probably process five or six cell phones a week,” Kennedy says. “And we’re telling these kids, you leave yourself open to prosecution and arrest. In some cases kids have been arrested and faced breach-of-peace charges or harassment charges.”
“Cyberbullying happens at all schools,” says Wes Bemus, who graduated from AITE in June. “But at our school we used it as a catalyst to help teach it. I was always taught by Mr. Gross that what you put on the Internet is forever.”
With AITE’s foundation in technology, Bemus has spent his high-school years learning about the good side of the Internet—and worrying about the bad side. “We’re lucky because we’re tech savvy,” he says. “But there are people across the country who are not tech savvy who will give away information that gives someone the keys to knowing about them.
“It can be dangerous for kids. Once you put something on the Internet, it can’t be taken back. It’s there forever.”
Bemus knows about Formspring, yet another hot new site that can be used for innocent dallying. “You can create a profile there, and you invite people to say things and ask you questions anonymously. They get posted and it’s as far as you should go. It’s being used maliciously.”
He knew about Alexis Pilkington, the Long Island teen who killed herself over what had been posted on her Formspring page. And he was upset about it.
“At the same time, the Internet is fantastic. Thirty years ago you could not do what I do today. I can sit in my class and communicate with people all over the planet from the computer in my classroom. I could, hypothetically, send an e-mail to any prime minister of any country, ask questions for my economics class and hypothetically get an answer. Now how could you do that thirty years ago? Twenty years ago?”
Ten years ago Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems, famously said: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Not everyone, however, wants to fall in line with his presumption of a post-privacy world.
Many people—especially teenagers—seem to take the old you-can’t-fight-city-hall approach to having their information on the Web. It is well known that the major players in our computer age, including Sun, Microsoft, Facebook and Google, run vast data centers dedicated to harvesting a million bits of personal information. How can we possibly fight them? Heck, we can’t even fight the guy at the corner muffler shop.
But maybe we shouldn’t automatically cave, as McNealy suggests we do. Many Web users prefer to take a stand. When you’re registering on a site, for example, why use your correct date of birth and mother’s actual maiden name? Why not say that your mother’s maiden name is Bubbles?
Face it. Facebook is like any other site of the Internet. It’s open to meddling. If someone puts an embarrassing wedding video of you up on YouTube, it’s not hard to get removed. But Facebook? If you enter those portals, can you ever get out?
Since its members regard the site as a personal scrapbook, they become angry when Facebook gets a little high-handed. Two years ago the site caused a riot of protests when it introduced Beacon, which sent messages to your friends telling them about your online purchases. Another uproar developed when it changed its terms of service to essentially say: You put it up on here; we own it in perpetuity.
Why does it do things like this? For one thing, it’s not exactly a hugely profitable company. (Facebook has been “valued” up to $15 billion, but that’s based not on profit flow but on the prices investors are willing to spend on small slivers of stock.) So its brain trust is clearly trying to figure out how to use the data that’s accumulating in its digital shoebox. Every time it faces a scandal, Facebook sees it necessary to backdown—at least a little.
By now every Facebook user has heard about the importance of double-checking one’s privacy settings…repeatedly. Facebook has supposedly made it easier, but as PC Magazine notes, it still has more than 170 privacy options scattered around the site.
For users who only recently learned that the word friend is a verb, not a noun, some basic tips:
• If you don’t want your Facebook shenanigans showing up on Google, go to Privacy Settings, click on Edit Your Settings under Applications and Websites, and locate Public Search. Find the line that says Enable Public Search. Uncheck that box. Save your changes. Twice to make sure.
• Go the privacy page. Learn how to make sure that the photos you put up are “tagged” correctly, so that only friends, for instance, can see the photos of you setting fire to Cancún.
• Similarly, if you want business-people to see your work e-mail address and phone numbers but do not want to share those with all 894 friends who share your Justin Bieber fetish, view Settings under Basic Directory Information and customize those privacy settings.
There may come a day when Facebook joins the rank of the half-forgotten Usenet groups, AOL chat rooms, Friendster or MySpace. Should you want to exit Facebook, you can delete your photos and even your account, but you never know, of course, who has copied your stuff to a folder faraway.
The late comedian George Carlin used to have an expression: “Try explaining Hitler to a kid.” In quite another context, try explaining to a kid that the personal information he or she so cheerfully puts up on a social networking page might someday be sold to a credit agency. This digital world is their world, and for the moment it’s a window into what they perceive as reality.