Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. ~Charles W. Eliot

Monday, December 6, 2010

Danger at a keystroke

My brother is a social worker who has dedicated his career to youth protection and cases involving juvenile delinquents. I have tremendous respect and admiration for the work that he does. He came under fire by our family a few years ago when he announced that the internet should be destroyed. This is not someone who lives in a log cabin and shuns electricity. Rather, this is someone who faces the most extreme dangers of technology on a daily basis - the risk to children. Over time, my brother has begun to soften his position and acknowledge that his point was extreme. Over time, I have developed an appreciation for his extreme position and see his point clearer than ever.

Pedophiles and other deviants have a more expansive playground by virtue of the internet and their reach knows no bounds. There is no way to keep them out. This is terrifying. There are other dangers, though, that are so much closer to home than that. Those of us with teens and preteens who spend time on the internet have to spend even more time worrying about the people they know. As noted in the important article on cyberbullying in this weekend's New York Times, "the Internet erases inhibitions, with adolescents often going further with slights online than in person" The article goes on to say that "this is a dark, vicious side of adolescence, enabled and magnified by technology." The Internet enables kids to post comments anonymously in various places. With the swift tap of the "send" or "publish" button, cruel words can wreak havoc on a person's self esteem and the perpetrator need not take any ownership of the words he or she selected. Teaching our kids responsibility has never been more important.

If you've been following this blog, then you know that cyberbullying and Facebook (don't even get me started on the dreaded!!) are soapbox issues for me. Grappling with these issues and the reality they represent has made me more preachy than I ever thought possible - turned me into a single issue sanctimommy, if you will. The reality is, though, that if we don't continually talk about these issues with our kids and with one another then we cannot hope to contain the harm.  We need to each start by reviewing with our kids what it means to be responsible. I think we need to start with the innocuous behaviors and trends that can so easily escalate. Kids routinely hack into one another's Facebook accounts to change their status. The jump from this kind of hacking to more insidious hacking is more like a hop. Harmful hacking is the next logical step - it may start off as a joke and spin out of control at the speed of light. Kids need to know what behaviors are not acceptable and kids need to know how quickly acceptable behaviors can devolve. If we don't teach them who will?

At some point in a future post I will write about the fact that colleges and employers look at Facebook pages to assess judgment of candidates. It's a wholly separate reason why I take issue with kids on Facebook but is not relevant here. Just thought you should know that it's coming in the future. Until then, consider the two following books you might want to read with your adolescent:

Jennifer Brown's protagonist Valerie creates a hate list of bullies who torment her and deals with the guilt of their death in a high school shooting perpetrated by her boyfriend.  

Jay Asher tells the story of Hannah who leaves cassettes for Clay and others,  revealing the 13 reasons why she committed suicide, causing the reader to contemplate the consequences of actions that may have been big, somewhat small, seemingly innocent, or something not so much but they lead to Hannah to an inability to cop.

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