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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”)
- 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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On this day..
- Discount this weekend: Playing with Media eBook 50% off thru Nov 20th! - 2011
- Final Dissertation Defense: Impact Analysis of Phonecasted Lecture Summaries - 2011
- MASSCUE XO Learning Moments - 2008
- No laptops at our meeting! - 2008
- All A Twitter about Twitter by Beth Knittle - 2008
- Discussing the Megan Meier MySpace / Suicide Tragedy - 2007
- Thinking Coffee 2.0 - 2007
- Changing expectations of learning - 2007