Dec 262010
 
 December 26, 2010  Online, Youth & Schools

Sophie Radice has a commentary about gossip web sites in the Guardian that free speech advocates may embrace :

I still remember the horror of discovering that the phantom scribbler who had been writing stuff on the desks and lavatory walls had written something about me: “Sophie is a slag, who wears too much make-up” and much more direct and to the point: “We all hate Sophie Radice!!”

It took me a whole double science lesson to felt-tip over it and for the next few weeks I felt humiliated and paranoid, particularly as other nasty comments about me (“Sophie is not nearly as pretty as she thinks she is” – ouch) appeared on desks and on the outside walls of my school. I strongly suspected that it was written by someone I considered a friend and the fact that I can remember every magic-markered word of it 30 years on indicates just how much it got to me.

[…]

So the way to tackle these sites is probably not to ban their use (how will that be enforced anyway with the prevalence of smart phones?), but to understand that the fickle nature of adolescents means that Littlegossip.com has already lost its grip on the hearts and minds of the young

Read the commentary in the Guardian.

School desks can be scrubbed or felt-tipped over.  School walls can be cleaned or painted over.  Students graduate,  move on, and never have to see the nasty comments again.  But what’s posted on the internet can last forever,  and those who are the targets of such “gossip” or mean-spiritedness may despair that their lives will be forever ruined, their ability to get into university affected,  or their ability to get a job affected.  The internet bathroom “wall” goes far beyond its brick and mortar analog in terms of persistence and durability.

Suggesting people just “ignore” such sites — or that teens who may be the target of such comments  just “ignore” such comments may appeal to those who fervently defend free speech, but it ignores what we know about adolescent development and the rate of depression and suicide in teens.

Over 11% of teens aged 13-18 will suffer major depression at some point. An episode of major depression can last for months and impair school and social functioning.  And of course, depression increases the risk of suicide.  Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. for those aged 15-24.

We will never know for sure whether Tyler Clementi‘s suicide was in reaction to what he thought was the posting of video or whether it was due to being “outed” on the internet, whether it was due to just knowing that he had been watched in an intensely private moment, or some combination of the above.   We do not know all the details of Phoebe Prince‘s harassment by fellow students and to what extent harassment via the internet contributed to her decision to kill herself.  We do know that Megan Taylor Meier‘s suicide was linked to internet messages by an adult posing as a teen boy.

As adults, we would be remiss not to be concerned about protecting teens’ privacy and reputation going forward. Child protection has often been used as an excuse for restrictive laws, but in this case, I think it’s not only warranted, but necessary.

We don’t let children drive a car because it’s not safe and they could be hurt or  kill themselves or others.  We don’t let children drink alcohol, and adults who sell them or serve them illegally can face criminal charges. We create “drug free” zones around schools to protect children’s safety.  Why, then, do we let children and teens engage in internet behavior that’s not safe for them or others?  And what, if any,  responsibility or liability should adults who permit or encourage such conduct have?