Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

MySpace statistics and adult responses

Scott Granneman has published an excellent article, “MySpace, a place without MyParents,” that not only includes statistics about MySpace that should get the attention of educators and parents alike, but also focuses on the REAL issues which do not have to do with the technology itself. He writes:

MySpace is the second most popular web property in the world! Since appearing in January 2004, the site currently has 87 million accounts, and it’s adding around 270,000 new users a day. Of those 87 million, about one-fourth are minors. In fact, the site grew 752% in one year, one of the largest – if not the largest – expansions on the Web in history. That might explain why Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace for $580 million a year ago. Murdoch’s no dummy, and it seems like it was a pretty smart decision, since the site pulls in around $13 million each month from advertising sales.

If you’re looking for the horror stories of MySpace, Scott has included short summaries of many as well as links to websites that document these tales. My position on this is that we all need to be well informed: these stories are not something that should be hidden or underplayed– we do have sexual predators out there, and many of them (if not all) are using the Internet to find and meet children. LMIRL is a real, important danger that all students and parents/guardians need to know about and understand.

However, as Scott notes, the real issues of MySpace danger have to do with a lack of parent supervision and a general need for more communication between young people and adults– especially teenagers and their parents. And we are seeing the media manipulate this issue with RAMPANT FEAR to encourage adults to behave irrationally and make reflexive, reactionary, and poorly-thought-out decisions. He writes:

Folks, we are in the midst of a mass hysteria. The media has found the latest way to drive readers and ratings: the good ol’ fashioned gumbo stew of children and teens, sexuality, murder and death, new technology, and fear. Lots and lots of fear. Fear that freaks out parents and those in authority and leads to bad decisions made in the name of security.

Are there rampant problems with sexual crimes in the United States today? Unfortunately, yes. But is the #1 stranger danger threat to children the online environment of MySpace and other DSN (digital social networking) locations? If you read the headlines about this stuff, you might think so. But that is not the case. According to the article “Scenes From the MySpace Backlash” from Wired in February 2006:

In actuality, the incidents that have been publicly linked to the site are dwarfed by the overall number of such cases historically prosecuted nationwide. An August study by the National Center for Juvenile Justice estimated there were about 15,700 statutory rapes reported to law enforcement agencies in the United States in 2000, based on an analysis of data collected by the FBI. That amounts to 43 cases per day. In fact, with a reported population of 57 million users, MySpace is arguably safer from such crime than other communities that haven’t been the subject of the same scrutiny. One example: California, which averaged 62 statutory rape convictions per month in the late 90s, in a state population of 33 million.

As the Wired article goes on to note, adults virtually masquerading as kids is not really that new, this has been happening since IRC started on the web. What IS different is the multimedia face of discourse on DSN websites. This is often shocking to adults. Technology has provided a clearer and more multimedia-rich window into the thoughts and actions of teens. And what many adults see, they don’t like. The Wired article asserts that because teens are CREATING content, and not merely text chatting, the environment is qualitatively different.

This time, though, the target of the crackdown is content created by teens and not just consumed by them.

I maintain that we (as educators, parents and adults) should WANT to help students safely and appropriately WRITE THE WEB, not just read and consume it. Digital immigrants come from a generation of media consumers and an old media broadcast model of transmission-based entertainment. Young people today, the digital natives in our midst, increasingly reject that model. They will consume some media content via TV, but they also like interacting via IM, DSN, and games. They are not monolingual when it comes to media. They are not even bilingual, they are fluent in multiple modalities and do not fear the proliferation of digital languages within our networked communications landscape.

When it comes to school district responses to students creating this content, I am reminded of the Tinker case we studied in my educational law class a couple of years ago– and this is cited in the Wired article as well:

In many of these cases it’s clearly the adults who are misbehaving. Under a 1969 Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, even on-campus student speech is afforded First Amendment protection at public schools, unless it “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.” Several lower courts have applied the same standard to off-campus speech that has on-campus impact, but have held that criticism of faculty doesn’t qualify as material disruption, even if the author uses four-letter-words.

All my notes from that class are incidentally still available online– including notes on students rights, search and seizure at school, etc. My main takeaway from the Tinker case and this discussion was, “Students don’t leave their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.”

As I’ve written previously, banning is not the answer. Face to face (F2F) conversations are. Granneman agrees with this in his article. After relating a story of how a 40 year old child predator used a phone a few years ago to contact and eventually initiate a relationship with a 14 year old, he wrote:

So since that sicko used the telephone to meet his victim, we should ban phones? Or at least tightly control how kids use them, with age restrictions and credit card verifications? Of course not. The fact is, every new technology has been used by people to perform, or enable, illicit and illegal acts. MySpace, and the Internet in general, simply expands the ability of people to communicate easily over distance more than any other tool that humanity has created. The fact that it’s been adopted so wholeheartedly by teenagers freaks out adults who don’t know how to control MySpace and its ilk.

The world has changed, and kids are changing too– but some of the basic human desires that young people have had since the dawn of time (a desire for individual recognition, a need to define their own identiy, and a desire to socially network) remain strong. I agree with Granneman’s observation that we should think of DSN spaces as the new virtual mall of the 21st century:

Parents now worry about their kids’ safety out in the big world, so they don’t allow walks to and from school, and bike rides to who knows where, and aimless cruising in cars. Better to have kids inside the house, or at supervised events, or in school activities. But kids still want to mingle, and they still want to hang out. Think of MySpace as the biggest mall in the entire world, and you might start to understand why kids spend so much time there.

We do need to make better efforts to educate kids as well as adults about internet safety and the dangers of the online environment. I’m about to publish another podcast, in fact, from yesterday’s Oklahoma Leadership 2006 conference on this very topic. But I’m with Granneman, educational efforts will not be a complete response.

We can sure try to educate kids and parents and schools about MySpace, but I’m just not certain how effective we’re ever going to be. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but it also means that we can’t expect perfect success. Any time you allow humans to come into contact with each other, there’s the potential for exploitation. That doesn’t mean disaster is guaranteed, however. It just means that we need to try to keep a cool head and not allow blind emotion and fear to cloud our better judgments.

Right on. We need to help each other become better parents. We need to help each other become better communicators with our young people. We need to spend more time DOING things with them, so we’ll develop deeper relationships that become even stronger platforms for real dialog. Quality time cannot happen between human beings without quantity time, I’m convinced of that. If the MySpace hoopla leads to more communication and improved relationships between parents and their children, then I think we can rate this entire affair as a big success. Unfortunately, people usually don’t like to change their ways, and the issue of improving adult and youth communication is a challenging row to hoe.

That does not mean, however, we should shy away from the challenges or the opportunities present here. This would make a great service learning project for many communities. We can’t let our communities be overcome with fear and simply act in reactionary, non-productive ways when it comes to Internet safety. We should WANT kids to write the web and become literate netizens interacting with others around the planet. We need to help them learn how to do these things safely, legally, and powerfully. That is what digital literacy and digital citizenship should be all about in the 21st century.

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