This summer Oprah Winfrey re-aired her shocking program from February 2006, “The Young Boy Lured into Becoming an Internet Porn Star.” My wife recently recorded this show on our home DVR and showed it to me this weekend. Neither of us had seen this show previously or heard about this specific case. For detailed and up-to date information on the primary person the show focused on, Justin Berry, refer to the WikiPedia article for him. External links at the bottom of the article provide additional background, most notably Kurt Eichenwald’s December 19, 2005 article for the NY Times which broke the story, “Through His Webcam, a Boy Joins a Sordid Online World.” Active discussions on Oprah’s message boards reveal this program continues to strike many nerves and raise many issues. These issues are not limited to the question of whether kids should be allowed to have webcams at all, or specifically webcams in their bedrooms. As kids gain access to more digital devices capable of accessing the Internet, like handheld PSP game systems, some parents are realizing the devices can be and are (in many cases) being used to access pornographic web content. These topics are important and worth discussing at length. For the sake of brevity as well as attempted organization, I’ll summarize my main thoughts under several headings.

webcam

1. ONGOING DIGITAL DIALOG IS THE KEY

There are many issues here, but technology is neither the complete culprit nor can it offer a complete “solution” or answer. We have always, and continue to have as human beings, important needs for ongoing dialog between adults and young people. Dr. Stephen Glenn defined dialog as “a meaningful exchange of perceptions in a non-threatening environment.” All too often in our fast-paced, multi-tasking and overcommitted lives, we fail to provide adequate opportunities for adults and young people to engage in dialog. In addition to dialog, we also ALL need to have ongoing, supportive relationships of accountability with others. Without dialog and real accountability, everyone can fall into trouble of some kind. BEING ALONE is the worst condition under which anyone can face serious challenges in life. When we try to stand alone, sadly we often fall alone. We all need dialog and accountability, and those two things do not come “naturally” in our day-to-day routines. We must intentionally shape our schedules and our lives to provide for these things, otherwise they will not / do not become regular parts of our daily routines.

2. DRAWING ATTENTION TO A PROBLEM IS EASY, OFFERING REAL SOLUTIONS IS MUCH MORE DIFFICULT

I frequently address Internet safety and online social networking issues in presentations for teachers, students, and parents. Just as it is relatively easy to “scare parents off the Internet,” it is also easy to identify problems without offering practical ideas for constructively addressing the issues which have been raised. The main “solution” or action step which Oprah offers to resounding applause in this February 2006 episode for parents was to prohibit all webcams in children’s bedrooms. That suggestion is not novel, of course, virtually every website focused on Internet safety issues for families includes the suggestion that computers at home be located in family spaces (like the living room) rather than in bedrooms. NetSmartz, SafeKids, and the FBI’s Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety are three example sites which include this recommendation. Yet what about wireless, handheld gaming devices like the PSP which can be used to get online? What about laptops when your child attends a progressive school implementing a 1:1 laptop learning initiative? What about your child’s cell phone, which may already permit web access and almost certainly includes text messaging and media messaging? Telecommunications convergence means many things, but one of the most tangible implications in this context is that parents and other adults have far less control today than they/we did in the past to limit the access young people have to ideas and media.

The issues raised in this Oprah episode about Justin Berry ARE very important and worth discussing. I was disappointed to see that in that program from 2006, at least, Oprah and others speaking on the program did not seem to suggest much with respect to addressing this issue other than suggesting parents everywhere ban webcams from children’s bedrooms.

3. WEBCAMS HAVE VIABLE AND BENEFICIAL USES BESIDES PORNOGRAPHY

Episodes like this one from Oprah tend to be sensationalist in nature. These are REAL issues, of course, but we should be wary to not overgeneralize based on the statements and opinions of the show guests. Both Justin Berry and Kurt Eichenwald make the argument that webcams have no viable place in anyone’s home or on anyone’s computer. Their opinion seems to have been (during this 2006 show) that the only reason someone would need a webcam is to engage in Internet pornography. This position is both extreme and false. It is not baseless: Certainly Justin provides a disturbingly vivid example of how some Internet users DO choose to use webcams to engage in pornography. It is misleading and harmful, however, to generalize and state that ALL webcams are used for nothing other than porn.

Do terrorists around the world use cell phones to plan and coordinate violent attacks? Are students around the world using cell phones to cyberbully? Sadly, the answer to both questions is yes. Should we therefore assume that all cell phones are evil and should be banned from the planet? That would be ridiculous. Yet the audience in Oprah’s show in February 2006 seemed to accept this same argument about webcams.

I may be in the minority with this view, but I contend every K-12 and university classroom in the United States should be equipped with a webcam and microphone in addition to an Internet-connected computer. The reason for this is simple: We live in a global society with an interdependent global economy. As Andrew Churches wrote last week in his outstanding post “21st Century Assessment:”

Collaboration is not a 21st century skill it is a 21st century essential.

As teachers we should be using audio and videoconferencing technologies REGULARLY when we participate in and lead professional development workshops. Our students should be utilizing audio and videoconferencing technologies EVERY WEEK as regular elements of their classwork. Encouraging this type of regular digital collaboration is not a repetition of history, it is a tangible way to recognize the dramatically different economic landscape in which we live and make appropriate behavioral modifications in response to that new understanding. Without a webcam and a microphone, how will learners in our classrooms make these regular, critical connections? On their own cell phones when they get outside the school building? We shouldn’t limit student and teacher opportunities for collaboration to their own free time and their own personal telecommunications devices.

Videoconferencing has been limited in the past by access to costly hardware equipment, but those days are clearly over. In addition to $20 webcams, videoconferencing has already moved onto cellular phones in parts of Europe and the far east. In the United States, cell phone services like Video Share from AT&T are but a small preview of the videoconferencing technologies which are literally on our doorstep. Should we accept the view presented by this Oprah show from 2006 that “nothing good can be done with a webcam?” Certainly not. We should heed the advice of many when it comes to the issue of Internet safety, and take multiple steps to address the issues which are raised here. Just as an informed organization today approaches network security with a “defense in depth” approach, families, school groups, and communities should also approach Internet safety in a similar way.

4. CULTIVATING DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP SKILLS SHOULD BE OUR FOCUS

Some “Internet safety experts” like Parry Aftab suggest banning your child from having any access to social networking websites like MySpace, or sitting by/with your child every moment s/he is using a social networking website. This is completely unrealistic, in my view. Parry writes:

Professionals recommend either denying your children access to MySpace, or sitting there with them as they use it. This mom agrees. Of course kids go to other friend’s houses and use MySpace, but that requires increased supervision by the friend’s parents. MySpace damage must be discussed and taken seriously.

I spoke with an Edmond parent earlier this summer whose 8th grade daughter spends 2.5 hours EACH NIGHT on Facebook. The daughter does not talk with friends on the phone, she does not use IM or email, she uses Facebook. How many kids are “out there” like this? A lot. As parents, are we going to try and ban our children from EVER being on a social networking website of ANY kind, regardless of their age? I certainly agree that depending on the age of a child, social networking sites like MySpace are NOT appropriate. Like other issues which come up in parenting, decisions have to be made based on a variety of factors including the age and maturity of the child. Like it or not, however, we DO live in a media-centric society in which the Internet is playing an ever more important role. Google HAS and continues to create an electronic porfolio about every single one of us. The question should NOT be whether or not, as a parent, you are going to allow your child at some point to establish an online presence, instead it should be WHEN are you going to start encouraging your child to proactively and responsibly manage their online identity which will likely be one of the most important factors future employers take into consideration both before and after formal job interviews?

We must cultivate digital ethics as digital citizens. No, that is likely NOT one of your assigned state standards, but it is imperative to address with your own students as well as your own children in the months ahead none-the-less.

There are many more issues which this episode from Oprah raised and continues to raise, but I think I will close here. It was very worthwhile to watch this segment with my wife and discuss it at length. I wish, like the PBS Frontline special “Growing Up Online,” Oprah would choose to make the full-length video of that episode viewable for free online. While I still maintain we need to focus on constructive ways to address these issues and not merely point out the problems, there IS great value in catalyzing conversations about these issues– and Oprah certainly does that well in this case as well as others. The key is the ongoing CONVERSATION and dialog about these issues. Our need for “digital dialog” is the reason I started the Digital Dialog Ning many months ago. In the months ahead, I hope conversations will continue there and elsewhere about these issues and the ways we can address them as parents, educators, and community members. From these conversations can come actions, which can and will change the world in tangible ways for those we are able to influence in our own lives and contexts.

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11 Responses to Webcam and PSP Porn: More reasons for ongoing digital dialog

  1. Derek says:

    As usual, good points all around. This is yet another example of why it’s important for parents to engage in a digital dialog with their kids and discuss what is appropriate and what’s not.

    And while parents worry about that webcam, they should also be aware that video sites like YouTube and Hulu ( http://www.alleyinsider.com/2008/7/why-dudes-love-hulu-free-porn )contain pornographic video and other content that may not be appropriate for their kids to watch.

    When I point this out at presentations on digital literacy and social networks and parents are always shocked to learn that YouTube isn’t all kittens and skateboarding bull dogs.

    For many school administrators and parents blocking content seems like the easiest way to address the issue. But doing so creates a “Lord of the Flies” environment where our kids are left to navigate the world of social networks and content without any direction. Just like we have “drivers ed” to help them learn the rules of the road, we need to arm them with the digital skills necessary to navigate safely in the digital world.

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    Thanks for the feedback, comments and link, Derek.

    I would also refer folks to Kim McManus’s recent message for Mosaic church (in LA) simply titled “pornography.” The previous link is to the direct mp3 audio file, this link is available from the Mosaic podcast channel. As the former church youth leader and his wife attest who speak in this episode, the lure of pornography can affect anyone. It is essential we speak about these issues and take steps to address them. My wife heard a youth pastor several months ago lament how tired he was in counseling male teens who are addicted to Internet porn. There is not one simple, easy “fix” to these problems and these issues are simply NOT going to go away.

    I agree, of course, with your analogy of driving and “driver’s education.” This summer I’ve also grown fond of using an analogy of swimming, since my two youngest kids have come a LONG way in their swimming skills thanks to almost daily practice and a two week swim class with a great instructor. Swimming can be dangerous, but it’s a vital skill. We have to get wet to learn how to swim. Similarly we need to use social networking tools and technologies to understand them, and we have to use them together with our kids.

    Certainly there are some people who are physically able to swim but refuse to ever learn how. I would contend it is in everyone’s best interest that they know how to swim, for multiple reasons, safety being number one. Digital citizenship should similarly be viewed as a skill set and area of “dispositions” (I think that’s the word NCATE uses) which all students need to develop and cultivate.

  3. Steve Ransom says:

    Wes, I think the following quotation from your post needs to be discussed a great deal more,

    “In addition to dialog, we also ALL need to have ongoing, supportive relationships of accountability with others. Without dialog and real accountability, everyone can fall into trouble of some kind. BEING ALONE is the worst condition under which anyone can face serious challenges in life. When we try to stand alone, sadly we often fall alone.”

    Even in most digital citizenship/safety workshops, this is not really emphasized (except for not putting the computer in an isolated area free from supervision). But it is more than that – it is the concept of relationship, accountability, and open dialog. Just putting the computer in the kitchen is not enough in most cases. You have to “be there” in mind and spirit, not only body.

  4. Tami Brass says:

    Wesley,

    I was relieved to see I wasn’t the only person questioning the attitude of making the technology go away as the only solution to this situation!

    This fall, my middle school will be distributing tablet pcs with webcams to students. At first I was hesitant about providing kids with the technology, but then I saw the potential for classroom use. When I spoke with teachers about the potential for misuse, we used the analogy of providing 1-1 laptops. Yes, the possibility of misuse exists, but the potential for providing opportunities for poverty learning outweighs this possibility. If we are serious about preparing kids with 21st Century Skills, we Can’t avoid collaborative technologies. We need to embrace them and discuss them openly with kids so they’re able to use them responsibly when time comes.

    That said, our implementation coincides with a new required class – Wellnology (Wellness + Technology) – a combination of digital ethics, Internet Safety, and healthy use of technology. I’ll be teaming with our school counselor (rotating with her Wellness class) as appropriate and prepping with content-area teachers to continue the discussion beyond my classroom. We’ll also be stepping up our existing parent chats to reflect discussions with students. Hopefully, combining the efforts of so many people who care about our students will provide the support necessary when temptations to abuse arise.

  5. Wesley Fryer says:

    Tami: I tried to post the following as a comment to your own blog post about this, but couldn’t get your antispam captcha image to load so my comment could not be submitted…..

    I think problems with student access to pornography in 1:1 projects is a bigger problem than we often hear about. One reason for this is that it seems under-reported. Certainly school officials don’t want to widely announce that these problems are taking place, because of the negative impact they could have on the 1:1 initiative overall. Yet these issues can affect anyone. I think you are wise to raise these issues. I am going to write more about this topic, as I took time to watch the 7 part video series on the NYT website about this 2006 case this evening– and it’s clear there were MANY things going on in the lives of the “kid” involved than just having a webcam. So much of this comes down to good parent/child communication. Too many parents today see the computer as “just another screen” like the television, I think, and that is a dangerous perception. I think it is a delicate balance to help parents change that perception, but in the process not convince them that the Internet and computers overall are evil and should be rejected. I haven’t heard or seen many speakers on the issue of Internet safety who can navigate this balance well.

  6. Tami Brass says:

    Wesley,

    Sorry about the comment issue. I’ll look into it (recent WordPress upgrade).

    I agree about pornography being a big issue for 1-1 schools. Most administrators of 1-1s compare it to bringing a Playboy mag to school, but 21st Century pornography is far easier to get and too interactive for kids just discovering the power of hormones to resist. When I became involved in my first 1-1 computing program, I had no idea what was out there, but I soon learned that dealing with kids on the topic meant we had to be non-judgmental. The “best” our generation would have gotten would have been a talk with the principal, a guilt trip, and a call home. Kids need to have an open door for discussion with multiple adults – at home, at school, places of faith – combined with people who care enough to start the discussion about “sensitive” issues (pornography, dealing with loneliness, online vs. real-life friends) before they get out of hand (and ideally before they’re encountered). My biggest regret is that these conversations aren’t started in early elementary school. It amazes me that parents don’t realize how much risk they’re kids are at until they have a school laptop. As a parent, I see plenty of 3rd graders with PSPs and cell phones; I hear from lots of parents who have allowed independent surfing at home because they filter or never saw anything “bad” in the IE history and they have a the computer in a family room.
    I appreciate the shock value of shows like Oprah’s as something of which we should be aware, but easy solutions (taking away the technology) don’t provide long-term effectiveness. Demonstrating appropriate use, providing a positive context for engagement, and making the difficult conversations as safe as possible are what our kids really need.
    Maybe we can create a virtual presenter? Take all of the ideas people have mentioned above and put them into a killer 3D Voki?
    Just a thought 🙂

  7. Steve Ransom says:

    Wes,
    I also think that a large part of the general public has had this mentality that pornography is okay and natural. This flies in the face of the types of issues we are talking about. Unless we can address these issues in larger contexts, it will continue to be an uphill battle. Yes, pornography has been around for ages, and many have seen access to it as some sort of “rite of passage” into adulthood. However, this new breed of easy/free access/private access/ubiquitous access has brought related issues to a whole new and critical level for children and adults alike. And, children now have access to it earlier and earlier, whether intentional or unintentional. I think there is a definite agenda out there with pornographers to entrap and hold a larger and younger market…. get ’em early and keep ’em as long as possible… sigh… What to do?

  8. Gary Stager says:

    Would it seem too glib to ask, “Who cares?”

    Perhaps this is just ONE case and Saint Oprah is exploiting adult fears for ratings and personal gain?

    The fact that Oprah ran the program again during the summer is testament to its ratings.

    I’m beginning to think that the #1 21st Century Skill is reason. #2 is rationality.

    I hesitate to generalize from my personal experience, but we had HBO in my home when I was in the 5th grade. Both of my parents worked and we almost always came home to an empty house (I can hear the shocked gasps and pity echoing through cyberspace). My parents told us not to watch certain things and by and large we did as we were told. Of course we snuck a peek at TV shows and even rode my bike to the next town to buy Playboy, but I knew what my parents (who paid for my music lessons, participated in scouts and pitched-in at school) would expect of me.

    We weren’t supposed to drink, smoke or take drugs either. My sister did the first two. I did not. C’est la vie! My three kids had their own laptops or desktops with Internet access in their bedrooms since the first Clinton administration. At 20, 22 and 24 none of them has wound up on Oprah. We trusted and respected the kids and hope they felt the same about us.

    I’m concerned about kids raised in overprotective homes as well as kids whose parents say, “Well, as long as they drink at home.” I suspect that as we raise the level of what is taboo, we elevate the risks kids take to push boundaries and challenge the rules.

    Kids also need their own space. Raising them like veal is unlikely to turn out like you had hoped.

  9. Steve Ransom says:

    @Gary – I think that it is wise to hesitate to generalize from your own experience. 50 different commenters would have 50 different experiences. You are right, I think, in being concerned about irrational and overprotective parents. And yes, Oprah and other media outlets to a great job of sensationalizing the exceptions in life. But as for what parents consider taboo – well that is a result of their own personal, moral, and religious beliefs and convictions… things they work hard at passing on to there children… things worth protecting. However, just like the stereotypical “preacher’s kids” who are the worst behaved and most promiscuous in the congregation, one can go too far. It’s critical that parents keep good lines of communication open, talk about issues they face as well as issues that their children are facing, and yes… set boundaries. No one is talking about raising “veal” here. We are not talking about situations where parents are happy that their kids are having sex, drinking, and smoking (whatever) at home because at least they can keep an eye on them. That is just ludicrous and nutty. And I know it does happen. Those are not the values at the heart of these issues. There is no denying that pornography and other risky behaviors are huge problems in our society and are seriously impacting families, marriages, and kids. But as parents and teachers, we can only do what we feel and know to be right. In the end, our kids will end up making their own decisions. Hopefully, those decisions will be influenced by the positive behaviors and beliefs that we tried to instill.

  10. Wesley Fryer says:

    Gary: I think it is overly glib to ask, “Who cares?” A lot of people pay attention to Oprah and the stories she chooses to amplify on her program, and a lot of folks utilize the information she provides to shape their own perceptions of technology and its potential value. I am very concerned about helping encourage balanced approaches to discussing issues like Internet safety and social networking. I agree with Steve’s point, that we all have to be wary of generalizing based on our own experiences. That is the lens through which we each view the world, but certainly there are a host of different factors which play into parenting and these sorts of discussions / issues. To one of your points, I agree many parents should trust their kids more, but essential to that trust is the regular opportunity to engage in dialog. That is a missing element in many households and families, today. For support on this I’d again reference back to Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelson’s work.

    While I agree all parents should be aware of this story and the danger / potential for abuse which exists with webcams, I also think it is misleading to portray (as Oprah did on this program as well as the NYT writer who broke this story in his article and video interviews) that this can EASILY happen to ANYONE. When you listen to Justin tell his story (particularly in the NYT video interviews) it becomes clear he was “at risk” before any technology entered the picture. Here are some red flags:

    1. He didn’t have any friends at school.
    2. He was hospitalized after he was allegedly beaten by his father, and received seven stitches in his head.
    3. His own father hired prostitutes for Justin so he could expand his activities on his website.
    4. His mother claimed she had no idea anything was wrong.
    5. Another student at Justin’s school found his website and circulated the videos around his school, embarrassing Justin and causing him to want to leave school. Yet no one apparently talked to Justin’s mother about this.

    As I’ve shared in presentations and blog posts previously, it is my contention that “kids most at risk online” are also “at risk in the face to face world sans technology.” It is true that technology and Internet connections now provide direct access to children (as well as older folks) for people with harmful intentions (like pedophiles) and those types of DIRECT, personal and potentially private connections were not possible in earlier eras.

    One of the most important things for people of all ages to realize is that the #1 behavior which puts them at risk online is TALKING ABOUT SEX. In Justin’s case, he registered himself on a webcam site with his picture and age, and immediately got contacted by strangers who eventually groomed him to talk about sex and do sexually related things. Talking about sex with strangers was the #1 tipping point here. Was his mom talking to him about sex? Was his mom talking to him at all? How could she let him go to Las Vegas to meet people she didn’t know, where he was molested and abused? This is a tragic story, and certainly the sexual predators who victimized Justin bear a huge amount of blame that should have severe consequences, but Justin’s parents also shoulder a great deal of this responsibility as does Justin at some point. Oprah and Kurt Eichenwald both shied away from this issue of “free will” and choices in their discussion of Justin’s case, but I don’t think we should ignore it. Yes I agree Justin was a victim, but he was also making choices and was not entirely a pawn at the complete mercy of his environment. Thank GOODNESS at last an adult (Kurt Eichenwald) helped him climb out of his pit of self-destructive behaviors. One lesson from that side of this story is that as individuals, OUR WORDS AND ACTIONS MATTER. Whether we are the biological parent of a young person or not, what we say and do can have an important impact on others.

    Given those perspectives, perhaps you can better understand why I strongly take issue with the sentiment “Who cares?” We should care and must care. Yes, this is a sensationalized case, but as Steve points out in his comment these issues are “in our face” more and more in our digitally connected landscape, and we’ve got to do a better job being proactive about addressing them. Simply banning tools and technologies is not a viable answer, and neither is wishfully hoping that kids will be responsible and we just need to encourage parents to be more trusting. As I said before, what we all need are relationships of accountability and frequent opportunities for dialog with others.

    Steve, I WILL write more about this down the road… I agree these ideas need to be further elaborated. 🙂

  11. mostall says:

    with the porn and the PSP in particular it has become very easy now days to find it for free, without so much as a warning page asking if you are over 18. If you google “PSP Porn” the first website that comes up is 100% free porn that anyone can access. Other popular sites like [site address deleted] has at least taken the correct legal way to handle it. Agreed though, webcams are tricky and can be dangerous, especially for younger kids.

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