This morning’s Today show featured the story of a Missouri teen who committed suicide (in October 2006) after a “MySpace romance” fell apart, which turned out to be a hoax created by the parents of one of her classmates. Ironically, the parents were neighbors living close by the teen. (See “Parents of MySpace hoax victim seek justice” from MSNBC today.) This tragedy IS terrible, and highlights important issues school and community leaders, as well as parents and students, need to address head on.

The theme “communicate regularly with your child/teenager” and “monitor their use of the Internet” is a common one in presentations about Internet safety and online social networking. In this case, according to the parents, open communication channels and digital supervision were in place. According to the article:

The family’s story is, Tina Meier told Lauer, a cautionary tale about the trouble that lies in wait for kids on the Internet, a tale made more painful because they had monitored their daughter’s Internet use closely and had talked to her about “Josh” and the events that ended so tragically. “It was monitored highly,” Tina Meier said of her daughter’s MySpace account. “We had the password. She couldn’t sign on without us. We had to be in the room” when she was online.

The mother of Megan Meier shares the following advice for other parents:

“Continue to monitor your children… Take an extra step. Ask the question. Look at their computers, know what they’re doing. To kids, don’t trust anybody online that you do not know is your true friend.

That is good advice. But what about the question of whether a 13 year old needs to be on MySpace at all? Again according to the article:

The next day, as Megan’s mother headed out the door to take another daughter to the orthodontist, she knew Megan was upset about Internet messages. She asked Megan to log off. Users on MySpace must be at least 14, though Megan was not when she opened her account. A MySpace spokeswoman did not return calls seeking comment.

So if Megan wanted to socially network with her friends online, did she know about any alternatives like Imbee.com or Think.com? Were her parents or educators at her school making teens and parents in their community aware of moderated social networking environments like these? It is good Megan’s parents were talking with her about her online activities and monitoring what she did there, but should she (as a 13 year old) have been on MySpace with her own account at all? This question was not raised or addressed in the article. My response to this would be, “No. If she wanted to socially network with others online, a better idea would have been to use moderated social networking environments like Imbee or Think.com.”

What about Megan’s access to the computer? Again, another common refrain we hear in presentations and discussions about Internet safety is, “Do NOT put a computer in your child’s bedroom. Keep the computer in a shared family space, like the living room.” Was that the case with Megan? Again, from this article we cannot tell.

Cyberbullying was a major element in this situation with Megan as well. Again according to the article:

Someone using Josh’s account was sending cruel messages. Then, Megan called her mother, saying electronic bulletins were being posted about her, saying things like “Megan Meier is a slut. Megan Meier is fat.” Megan’s mother, who monitored her daughter’s online communications, returned home and said she was shocked at the vulgar language her own daughter was sending. She told her daughter how upset she was about it.

My questions are:

  • How long had Megan’s mother been aware she was using “vulgar language” in her instant messaging communications?
  • Besides being upset and communicating that to her daughter, what other consequences did she give her daughter as a result of her use of vulgar language online? (Did she lose her computer use privileges for a week? For a day? At all?)
  • When were school administrators contacted and involved in this situation? If the bullying had spread (as it appears) outside from the fictitious “Josh” person created by neighboring parents, to include her own friends at school, it would seem logical to notify and involve school officials in the situation.
  • What anti-bullying and bullying prevention programs were in place at Megan’s school to deal with bullying proactively as well as responsively in all its forms– both online and F2F?

As Dr. Allan Beane discussed at our Oklahoma Safe and Healthy schools’ conference several weeks ago, EVERY school should be proactively addressing bullying issues. Bullying is a cruel reality in every single one of our schools. Yet the level of action or INACTION on the part of administrators, teachers, parents, and students on the reality of bullying (both online and face to face) varies tremendously between school districts. For a short video vignette about how students and teachers can take a stand against bullying and make a difference, see the video “Hero in the Hallway.” I have this linked on my “Videos for Professional Development” blog page under the heading “Cyberbullying Prevention, Internet Safety, Safe DSN.”

It is difficult for me to imagine the pain and suffering which accompanies the death of a child. I do not have insider knowledge about Megan’s family or the situation addressed in this article and television program, but the following quotation from page three of the article is troubling:

Megan’s parents had been storing a foosball table for the family that created the MySpace character. Six weeks after Megan’s death, they learned the other family had created the profile and responded by destroying the foosball table, dumping it on the neighbors’ driveway and encouraging them to move away. Megan’s parents are now separated and plan to divorce.

I have heard previously that divorce is VERY common among couples who lose a child. Whatever the circumstances, it is hard to imagine anything challenging a marriage more than the death of a child.

What do we “take away” from this situation? To the credit of Megan’s parents and apparently the producers of this segment on Today, they are not “blaming the Internet” or technology for her death. Some community leaders in Megan’s city are looking to legislation as a way to address this situation, however. According to the article:

Aldermen in Dardenne Prairie, a community of about 7,000 residents about 35 miles from St. Louis, have proposed a new ordinance related to child endangerment and Internet harassment. It could come before city leaders on Wednesday. “Is this enough?” Mayor Pam Fogarty said Friday. “No, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s something, and you have to start somewhere.”

Ordinances and laws can be starting points, but clearly legislation is not “the complete answer.” Here are a few key points I commend to parents, teachers, and community leaders on this topic of Internet safety, cyberbullying prevention, and online social networking:

  1. Encourage students to socially network online in age-appropriate, moderated and non-commercial environments like Imbee.com and/or Think.com. Just like driver education, parents need to be involved and “in the know” as their children learn to safely use powerful new tools for virtual communication and collaboration.
  2. Collaboratively develop, implement and support an anti-bullying program in your schools. Alan Bean’s Bullyfree program offers many outstanding ideas and prescriptions, but there are many other ideas to consider too. The key is providing safe contexts for students to share and address bullying situations. Do school leaders WANT to have these conversations with students, parents, and others about bullying? In many cases, probably not, as Miguel and I discussed several weeks ago at TechForum Austin. Irrespective of administrator preferences, we have ethical obligations to the students and families we serve as educators. We need to intentionally encourage constructive conversations about these issues, and collaboratively develop action plans to address them. This is not just one person’s job. It takes a village to create a safe environment, not just one sheriff.
  3. Provide forums for parents to discuss issues related to Internet safety and discipline options for students inappropriately using different types of technologies. We need more opportunities for digital dialog.
  4. Find opportunities for students to safely share their voices online, and amplify the constructive digital stories they create in meetings of local service organizations. The Great Book Stories project, the Oklahoma WWII Veteran Oral History project, and the Oklahoma Digital Centennial Project are all initiatives with which I am involved which further this goal. If and when students in your local area create digital stories that are part of these projects or others, have them showcase their digital stories and talk about their learning experiences creating these projects for the local Rotary, Lions, or other service organizations and clubs in your town or city.
  5. Start a digital storytelling contest for your school and community, and connect with others at regional, state, and national levels who are offering digital storytelling contests for students. Bad headlines about the dangers and problems associated with online social networking are going to continue in the months and years ahead. As educators, it is up to us to help provide “counter-examples” of positive ways students are using digital media tools to safely and constructively share their voices. UthTV is one project you might consider inviting students to join. We DO need to discuss the dangers of the Internet, but we also need to maintain a reasonable approach to these issues and avoid the temptation to “scare everyone” off the Internet. (For more on that line of thinking, see the podcast of my presentation for Oklahoma Safe and Healthy Schools several weeks ago, “Moving Beyond the Fear Factor With Internet Safety.”)
  6. Work to transform part of your local library into a media production studio. Media literacy in the 21st century is about MUCH more than simply consuming information. Media literacy requires learners of all ages to CREATE and COLLABORATE on a regular basis to authentically acquire the skills required for the 21st century economy and information landscape. For more on this, see the “Maximizing the Impact” report from November 2007 by State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

No one wants a family to suffer as Megan’s has because of bullying. Let’s take proactive steps NOW in each of our communities to try and provide open as well as safe opportunities for communication between all the stakeholders involved in education and learning to discuss the varied and complex issues which are raised by this tragic event.

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  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Test comment. Some have reported not being able to comment on this post, so I am testing to make sure commenting is open and working. I think I’ve fixed that problem now and comments should be open.

  • http://nextsteped.blogspot.com/ Cory Plough

    My assistant principle and I recently spoke at the Virtual Schools Symposium about this topic. We proposed using social networks in schools as a method of reaching students where they feel comfortable. At a place where like to hang out. There are so many wonderful benefits to using social networks but there are some pretty hardy concerns. The audience reflected many of the questions you bring up and there are not a lot of great answers yet. Ning has the wonderful capability of administering your own networks and if you are using it in an educational setting they will remove the Adsense so it is a completely walled garden. However, that does not eliminate the students need to test boundaries and discover their identity which they can do on an open network with few restrictions.
    https://wiki.odysseyk12.org/vss2007

  • http://macadder.blogspot.com Danny Rose

    Wes, not to come across as a complete noob, but I do have a few observations/comments about this.

    I have to admit that when I heard the word “legislation”, I winced just a tad. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an ordinance that didn’t cause just as many problems as it prevents.

    Also, along the cyber bullying issue, how is this type of thing different from the standard schoolyard encounter? Bullying has been around for years, but it seems like when it goes online the rules change. Are we not able to just teach our kids to walk away, even in a virtual world? I agree it’s despicable behavior and needs to be dealt with firmly, but how has it changed moving online?

    Finally, my prayers go out to the Meier family. I don’t have kids of my own yet, but I can’t imagine what they are going through now.

    -D

  • http://schoolingdotus.blogspot.com edh

    I agree that it’s important to make more parents aware of tween-appropriate social networking sites like you mentioned above. The only problem is that when a majority of your RL friends are NOT on such sites, then you must turn to friending people you’ve never met in order to have a reason to use such a site. It’s a sort of catch-22 – the majority of users in your social circle will set the trend of site choice. This all contributes to the problems many parents have staying “involved” with their kids online.

  • http://toytotool.blogspot.com Liz Kolb

    Wes
    I’m so glad you posted on this topic.

    Have you read the recent reports by Dr. Larry Rosen from California State University? His Studies found at:
    http://www.csudh.edu/psych/lrosen.htm

    Basically he found (from 1500 MySpace users) that only 7% of them were approached by a stranger and they mostly ignored the stranger. His conclusion was that the media focus on how many predators were online in social networking sites such as MySpace was vastly overblown. He also found that in general parents were fairly unaware of what their kids were doing online (and 50% of the youths were using the internet in their bedrooms). Again concluding that there is a NEED for more parent and student education on how to use these resources appropriately. I completely agree with you on introducing tweens to “safe” social networkings sites such as the Disney or imbee sites. I think social networks have a very poor reputation in the media and educators have an opporunity to demonstrate “positive” uses of these sites (and teach them safety while doing it). One idea is to allow them to connect with their favorite youth authors on MySpace. Here is a huge list of youth authors with MySpace pages to connect to their readers.

    http://www.yalibrarian.com/yalib_wiki/index.php?title=Teen_Author_MySpace_Index

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    I hadn’t seen those reports from Dr. Rosen Liz, thanks SO MUCH for that reference link! I will check out those materials. Also thanks for the MySpace-connecting youth authors link! Wow!

  • http://www.csudh.edu/psych/lrosen.htm Larry Rosen

    Thanks for finding my work. I do think that the “moral panic” over sexual predators is misplaced and now with the major flap over the girl who committed suicide because of someone she met on MySpace is just adding to that. Granted what happened to the girl was disgusting and awful and the people who played the cruel joke on her are responsible, parents are now going to say, “See, I told you that MySpace is dangerous. You can’t be on MySpace anymore.” That is not the point. This could have happened many other ways and you can’t blame the messenger for the message. Sad, very sad. I hope that you will all take a look at my new book when it comes out in a few weeks. It is called “Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation. and it is full of solid research data and sound parenting advice from a psychological basis. No moral panic. Just advice on how to let your kids be on MySpace (or anywhere) and have a successful growth experience.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Larry: I am very glad to know about your work (thanks Liz) and will definitely check out your book. This message of taking a less reactionary, more reasoned (and yet safe) approach to online social networking is REALLY needed. I have been seriously considering writing a book about online social networking, digital discipline, digital dialog, etc… It will be good to read your book and hear your take on things, as well as see if there are other perspectives/ideas to address that are outside of the scope of what you cover. I think just the issues around discipline with your kids and media access devices (TVs, cell phones, computer technologies, etc) are very important to discuss and explore. We don’t typically take any parenting classes before becoming parents, and the array of issues facing parents today have increased in complexity. It is true many of these issues are the same– they have a new digital face in some cases– but I think the core principles about how to address challenges via open communication, clear boundaries, logical consequences, etc. are pretty timeless. Still, parents need ways to learn more about what students/kids are doing, where the potential danger areas or problems are, and what options they have to encourage safe and responsible use. I’m sharing several presentations on this topic in upcoming months and have been asked what books to recommend– I’ll definitely check out yours, and will post a review here after I read it.

    It’s amazing to me that you found this blog post and commented– even though I’m regularly blogging and commenting the connections which are now possible still continue to amaze me regularly…..

  • Julie MS

    Hello!
    I think that cyber-bullying is equilvant to bullying at school, and also much more accessible. Esecially with sites like myspace and facebook. I believe that schools need to educate students on tolerance and diversity to prevent situations like these from happening. It is so sad that now-a-days words hurt just as much as physical violence.

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