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Work with an effective youth-based Internet safety program? The Youth and Media Policy group wants to know about it!

The Risky Behaviors and Online Safety track of Harvard University Berkman Center’s Youth and Media Policy Working Group Initiative is creating a Compendium of youth-based Internet safety programs and interventions. We are requesting organizations, institutions, and individuals working in online youth safety to share descriptions of their effective programs and interventions that address risky behavior by youth online. We are particularly interested in endeavors that involve educators, social services, mentors and coaches, youth workers, religious leaders, law enforcement, mental health professionals, and those working in the field of public or adolescent health.

Program descriptions will be made publicly available. Exemplary programs will be spotlighted to policy makers, educators, and the public so that they too can learn about different approaches being tried and tested. Submissions also will be used to inform recommendations for future research and program opportunities.

The Cloak of Anonymity: Trolls as Digital Aggressors

What does a “digital aggressor” look like? Unfortunately, that’s exactly the problem: it’s often hard to tell. The internet, as an environment that accepts anonymity, often plays host to anonymous interactions. Anonymity cloaks the individuals who produce and post words and images; the seeming lack of consequence for anonymous actions can be emboldening. In certain repressive states, the potential for anonymity provided by the internet can embolden individuals in positive ways: to speak out against social ills, to report on systematic cruelty. But in other cases, anonymity provides the mask for cruelty itself.

In an article titled “Malwebolence,” published in the New York Times Magazine this past August, reporter Mattathias Schwartz attacked the question of anonymity. He focused his attention on one specific facet of anonymous activity online: the advent of trolling. Schwartz describes the origins of this pursuit in Usenet forums in the early days of the internet, but then continues on to say that

“As our emotional investment in the Internet has grown, the stakes for trolling — for provoking strangers online — have risen. Trolling has evolved from ironic solo skit to vicious group hunt.”

Digital aggression, in this genre, usually takes the form of words. In fact, since the internet remains a primarily textual medium, most digital aggression remains textual as well. When combined with anonymity, this type of aggression can look suspiciously like passive aggression: idle needling performed without any expectation of responsibility.

However, trolling takes a turn when it leverages the communicative power of the internet to transmit not insults, but plans. Anonymous organizing can occasionally lead to real-world action, as in the case of protests against Scientology described by Schwartz. Fittingly, though, these protesters do so wearing signature Guy Fawkes masks—carrying the cloak of anonymity offline.

It’s tempting to be alarmist. But only in exceptional cases does the digital realm actually produce new kinds of cruelty. It makes certain expressions of aggression easier—particularly verbal/textual ones—but it also makes those expressions more public. Schwartz’s article is a fascinating tour through a troubling world. But it’s not the online universe that most digital natives live in, nor is it one they need to live in. That there is a dedicated place on the internet for trolling, perhaps, helps to protect the rest of digital realm from some of its excesses.

Out of Our Hands: Privacy and Internet Gossip

“Thank you for screwing up my freshman year.”
-Addressed to, from a CNN profile of a college student who was a target of posts on the site.

So tempting is a juicy piece of gossip. Despite assurances to the original informer to keep it on the down-low, the juiciest tidbits will always manage to slip out. But there is a tinge of a guilty conscience when one violates the trust of a friend. What happens when even this bit of accountability is entirely removed and anonymity is rule? You’ve got

JuicyCampus is a repository of gossip and rumors; organized by school, it presents information in a way that is maximally useful to gossip-seekers. Hot topics invariably include keywords like “gay,” “sex,” and “sorority.” It prides itself on complete anonymity and even directs users to proxies to mask their IP addresses. When I last JuicyCampus here, the site had just taken off, attracting media and legal controversy. I haven’t been able to find any recent news on the legal developments, so I can only assume they haven’t made much headway.

(A quick legal aside: JuicyCampus is protected by free speech and can claim immunity under Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act, which states “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” This means that JuicyCampus is not legally responsible for potentially libelous content on its site. What the New Jersey AG was attempted to do was sue JuicyCampus for consumer fraud in misrepresenting how it deals with content removal.)

We generally like to think that privacy is in our hands. We control the information about ourselves – Facebook has robust privacy controls, we choose what we put about ourselves online, etc. We do not, however, have any control over what others say about us. In this way, the existence a public forum like JuicyCampus allows others to invade our privacy. There are really two separate issues here, the posting of true information (invasion of privacy) and the posting of false content (libel). Let’s see how JuicyCampus deals with the former in its FAQs (my emphasis added):

How do I remove a post that someone else made?
You can’t. Only we can remove posts made by others, and generally we don’t. We do remove spam, but otherwise it’s pretty rare.

What if my contact information is posted?
If someone posts your email address, your home address, your home phone number, or other contact information (no, your full name doesn’t count), we’ll consider deleting it if you notify us. Shoot an email to us at with “Contact Info” in the subject, give us as much info as you can about the post so we can find it, and we’ll see what we can do. FYI, we may or may not read your complaint, and we may or may not respond to it. The decision of what action to take, if any, is at the sole discretion of JuicyCampus.

JuicyCampus’s FAQs and privacy policy are remarkably cavalier. I personally find it a little upsetting to see a site flaunt its CDA immunity with such blatant disregard for privacy. So how to deal with something like JuicyCampus? The Colonialist at George Washington University has come up with one strategy to combat JuicyCampus: spam. With spam the downfall of many message boards in the past, there is some poetic justice in fighting the malefactors of the Internet with their own weapons. But the strategy requires a corps of volunteers dedicating their time to….posting spam, not a particularly sustainable enterprise.

Or we can just ignore it. Every controversy surrounding it elevates its profile; every attempt to ban brings more curious visitors. I’m probably doing a disservice by mentioning JuicyCampus here. But there is a distinction I’d like to make. Posting on JuicyCampus is actually quite different from exchanging gossip with friends and acquaintances. Gossip is a kind of social currency – it’s showing off your exclusive knowledge and bringing a select circle into your confidence. These anonymous postings on the Internet, however, have no benefit to the poster, except perhaps the satisfaction of personal retribution. It’s the digital equivalent of nasty messages scrawled in the bathroom, only worse because the potential audience is the entire world. But as any smart student would realize, JuicyCampus really just an outlet for the spiteful and the bored. I’d like to think, anyways, that the site has only limited utility and thus limited appeal. That’s not to say terrible consequences can’t come out of its limited user base, but it’s never going to be the center of our online social live. Or am I being too optimistic?
-Sarah Zhang

When To Let Go: Negotiating Parental Controls

Although a digital native by any criteria, I am often finding myself out of touch with the even younger generation. I learned to read long before I learned to type. But this younger generation is making Internet buddies before they can talk and playing Tetris online before they can read. Two recent incidents made me feel like an old fuddy-duddy. First, there was the New York Times article linked above, about parents creating profiles for their babies on social networking sites such as Second, I returned home this summer to find my six-year-old brother entirely engrossed in playing Webkinz.

As children begin using the Internet at younger and younger ages, parental concerns about safety have become more prescient. An eight-year-old is naturally going to approach the Internet with more naiveté than a preteen. How do parents navigate these shifting waters? What responsibilities do websites aimed at young children have for their safety?

The most popular websites for children have addressed the issue of safety head on. Chat on Webkinz, which I played around with alongside my brother, only allows a preprogrammed list of questions such as, “Which Clubhouse room is your favorite” in the KinzChat Area or filters all messages through a dictionary excluding numbers, proper nouns and inappropriate language. (KinzChat Plus Area). The oft-mentioned Club Penguin, a virtual world where players interact with each other as penguins, has similar safety features in its chatrooms.

But Webkinz and Club Penguin are most popular among the younger set. More problematic is when children reach an age when they are not only more eager to shake off parental supervision but also savvy enough to do so. Emily Yoffe, in “What Kids Like to Do Online – A Slate Investigation,” found that several sixth graders were underwhelmed by Club Penguin because advanced access to the site required a fee of $5.95 per month or $57.95 per year fee, involving money and of course, parents.

All the kids had enough insight into economics and psychology to know that asking their parents would not only get a “No” but draw undue attention to their leisure activities. “I only do what’s free, but you get bored quickly,” Anna said

Although the sample size of this Slate survey was small and entirely unscientific, it sheds light on the general attitudes of preteens toward Internet safety and parental involvement. A 2007 “Safer Internet for Children” study by the European Commission surveyed boys and girls 9 to 10 years old and 12 to 14 years old in 29 European countries. All of the children were well aware of the dangers on the Internet, from viruses to pornographic sites to bullying. Striking, though not really surprising, is their attitudes toward parental involvement.. A lack of technological know-how on the part of parents is often cited as a reason kids prefer not to get them involved. “My parents don’t teach me, I teach them!” was the response of one boy in the European Commission study. And parental involvement is important, but they are not the sole gatekeepers

Parents are of course privileged informers, but they are sometimes perceived as excessively
protective, which can lead, among some, to relatively intrusive behaviour or behaviour perceived
as such (checking of the websites consulted, checking of e-mails) and hence a loss of privacy and
self-censorship. In this respect, children’s peers, classmates, friends and brothers and sisters
are interlocutors who are sought out more readily.

So as important as it is to monitor the activities of their children though, it’s also important not to over monitor. Drawing upon my own experience, I’d agree with that. While doing online research for a school project on witchcraft in fifth grade, I stumbled across a web site with a warning page cautioning that the content was not appropriate for children under the age of 16. I immediately went to my parents to ask permission. What my father did was launch into an angry lecture about Internet use, cut off my Internet access for a week, and demand a meeting with my teacher. I understand my parents’ concern, but my fifth-grade self found the episode completely embarrassing. Their reaction – overreaction I’d argue even now, I had gone to them after all – made me reluctant to ever ask them for permission online again. Whereas I used to ask permission every time I logged on (dial-up with limited hours – those good ol’ days), I began sneaking online after school.

Although this tug and pull regarding privacy between parents and children is natural in the process of growing up – a friend was recently complaining that her father had friended her on Facebook – parents don’t need to stand by helplessly. The key, and also the goal of the Born Digital book, is to foster a dialogue among parents and children and educators and policymakers. Internet use is yet another facet in the tricky job of parenting. The safety of younger children can be regulated by restricting and monitoring Internet use, but older children will eventually demand more freedom and privacy. How do we make this transition? I obviously write this post from the perspective of a child (though an fairly old child), so I would be interested in hearing parents weigh in!

-Sarah Zhang

Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF) Meeting Coming Up Next Week

Next week, on September 23rd and 24th, the Berkman Center will host a day and a half-long public meeting of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF) at Harvard Law School.

Created in February 2008, the ISTTF is a group of Internet businesses, non-profit organizations, academics, and technology companies that have joined together to identify effective tools and technologies to create a safer environment on the Internet for youth. This meeting will be an opportunity for members of the public to learn about the work of the Task Force, to explore the different technology-related problems and solutions under consideration, and to raise questions and share ideas. (For an example of ISTTF’s work, watch this video on “Teens Online, Stranger Contact, and Cyberbullying”.)

The meeting will conclude on Wednesday, Sept. 24th with an open discussion of the technologies presented on the previous day. For more information on this event and how to participate, check out the Berkman website here.

Trolling for Trouble

This week, a guest post by Daniel LaMagna, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children summer intern.

This past summer I interned at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. While researching for an online communication mini-documentary the other interns and I were working on (Dr. Palfrey and Miriam Simun kindly contributed!), I came across Matthias Schwartz’ fascinating New York Times Magazine article “Malwebolence- The World of Web Trolling.” While this phenomenon is not directly related to online child safety, it raises some interesting issues with regard to ethical questions of online behavior.

Anyway, it’s obvious that these particular web dwellers (on image/message boards) are a pretty nasty bunch. They seem to really get their “lulz” (naughty troll “kicks”) out of making other people miserable. As mentioned in the article, they don’t simply tease or taunt or “verbally” abuse their “targets,” but also threaten and harass them (both online and sometimes offline). If they want to be really rotten, they’ll even steal someone’s identity (social security number and all) and post it on an online public space for the world to see. This, of course, is criminal activity, but they’ve found ways to use the anonymity of the internet to avoid getting caught. Some espouse philosophical theories/ideals to justify their actions, but I think they’re just saying this to either:

1. Lie and confuse others just for the sake of it (for the lulz)
2. Rationalize their behavior
3. Sound complicated and “deep” (and way smarter than the rest of us)

Apart from the purely vicious and “see- how- bad- I- can- be” elements, a lot of this meanness seems to be about social acceptance (from the other trolls) and posturing. When you read what they write or say (whether online or offline in Schwartz’ interviews), they all seem to have one common tendency: to imagine (or at least want to imagine) themselves as all-powerful Internet gods. And with all their bragging and threatening and lusting for “lulz,” it’s pretty obvious that they, like most gods, want others to believe in their “awesomeness” as well. And thou best not question them or challenge them, for thou shall incur their wrath. Gulp. Note: See the reader’s comments section on the article, and you’ll find that they say this repeatedly. It’s clear to me that despite their claims to the contrary, they desperately care about how they are perceived.

For example, one of the trolls was clearly trying to impress Schwartz by picking him up in a Rolls Royce. Another troll took a picture of Schwartz’s debit card number and proudly showed him the image of it on his cell phone. I guess it was supposed to make him seem “dangerous.” The segment of the article ends there; Curiously, Mr. Schwartz has no response. Maybe he was afraid that a little moral judgment would lessen the objectivity of his story? Or maybe he was afraid of what the trolls could do if they decided that he’d make a nice “target.”

The lack of any clear ethical or moral opinion from Schwartz has made the article, at least to me, seem to agree with the trolls boasts and add to their credibility and sense of empowerment. The implication was “Wow, this guy really is as scary as he claims to be. Don’t mess with him.” Unfortunately, this has probably achieved exactly what trolls wanted. It has elevated the “legend” of the invincible troll out from under the bridges and caves of cyberspace and into the mainstream consciousness. There is a good chance that, like offline criminals always have (pirates, outlaws, gangsters, etc…), they will be both feared and admired (at least by some). For the first time in their lives, normal people might actually think they’re “cool” (which is what they really want). Interestingly enough, I can’t think of anything more “human” (and less “godlike”) than the desire to be acknowledged and “respected” by others.

Well, that’s my opinion. I’d like to hear your views on Schwartz’ article and on internet trolls in general. And in particular:

1. Are trolls dangerous? What threat do they pose to individuals and the Internet as a whole?

2. Will their influence “normalize” and/or popularize deviancy (In a social, sexual, political, etc… context)? If so, to what extent?

3. What effect could they have on mainstream society?

4. How can (or should) they be stopped? Should they be simply ignored, as some have suggested, or should they (especially those who commit crimes) be actively resisted (“counter-trolling,” increased law enforcement efforts, etc…)?

5. One troll referred to himself as “a normal person who does insane things on the Internet.” Do you think this statement reveals anything about the effects that online communication can have on people?

6. Your other concerns?

Visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or its NetSmartz Workshop department if you are interested in learning more. The film featuring Dr. Palfrey and Ms. Simun will be posted on the NetSmartz website in (probably) a few months, after production is complete.

– Daniel LaMagna

Cyber-War and Non-State Actors

In addition to the bloody conventional war that has raged between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia (which at least appears to be at a pause, now), there has also been a less-bloody but no-less-ruthless cyber-war waged by Russia against Georgia’s technology infrastructure:

The Georgian government is accusing Russia of disabling Georgian Web sites, including the site for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Because of the disruption, the Georgian government began posting the Foreign Ministry’s press dispatches on a public blog-hosting site owned by Google ( and on the Web site of Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski.

The attacks are structured as massive requests for data from Georgian computers and appear to be controlled from a server based at a telecommunications firm, he said.

This kind of attack, known as a distributed denial of service attack, is aimed at making a Web site unreachable. It was first used on a large scale in 2001 to attack Microsoft and has been refined in terms of power and sophistication since then. The attacks are usually performed by hundreds or thousands of commandeered personal computers, making a positive determination of who is behind a particular attack either difficult or impossible.

Bill Woodcock, research director of the Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit technical organization that tracks Internet traffic, said cyberattacks are so inexpensive that they are almost a certainty in modern warfare. “It costs about 4 cents per machine,” he said. “You could fund an entire cyberwarfare campaign for the cost of replacing a tank tread, so you would be foolish not to.”

Take special note of one element of the above passage – “first used on a large scale in 2001 to attack Microsoft.” While that is not chiefly true – the 2001 attacks came a year after DDoS attacks “slowed, and in some cases halted, access to eight major Web sites, including Yahoo, eBay and” – the overall thrust is correct. These were tactics first deployed by loose confederations of Internet mischief-makers (or, if you prefer, criminals) against corporate entities, and are now being used as part of a coordinated war effort by one sovereign state against another. And corporations are being used as allies – unwitting or not – in this war:

[Georgia has] switched their operations to one of Google’s Blogspot domains, to keep the information flowing about what’s going on in their country.

“In a sense,” notes Jim Stogdill, “They must be saying ‘we can’t keep our sites up, but we don’t think [Russian hackers] can take down Blogspot, given Google’s much better infrastructure and ability to defend it.'”

Set aside for a moment the cheesiness of a nation-state needing to outsource its information-space to Blogspot, and try to consider the whole bizarre set of exchanges of tactics and technologies in play.

  • Georgian troops move into breakaway region South Ossetia
  • Russian troops respond, repelling initial invasion and pushing Georgian forces into a full retreat
  • As part of continued counter-offensive, Russia adopts online assaults – first used less than a decade ago – and also used by Anonymous in their protests against the Church of Scientology
  • Due to the success of those attacks, Georgia takes refuge on the servers of one of the world’s most powerful corporations, whose market capitalization of US$158 billion dwarfs Georgia’s GDP of $20.5 billion, using a service first developed less than a decade ago

Thousands have died in this war. And while DDoS attacks are more a function of propaganda than lethal violence (and Russia’s straightforward bombing of cell phone towers probably more effective, tactically), it’s worth considering the degree to which online actions and innovations by individuals and entrepreneurs can be adopted by states in support of bad actions. This isn’t an argument in favor of locking down or making online life less open, but rather this should be a moment to realize another of the problematic aspects of a world that’s not flat but instead characterized by interconnections that increase complicity among a wide range of actors, whether that complicity is an active choice or not.

Digital citizenship is a tricky business – online, it’s not entirely clear where one’s loyalties do or should lie. What of international human rights activists whose own governments spy on them? Or software entrepreneurs whose products are adopted by repressive governments? It may simply be the case that with the near-zero cost of moving ideas around the world, we must get used to our ideas being carried forward and adopted by those with whom we disagree or even find abhorrent.

What of responsibility, then? I think our responsibilities online ultimately are no more or less than our responsibilities offline – be conscious of our actions and how they effect others, and always seek to treat others justly.

Jacob Kramer-Duffield

From Email to Blog: A DN Debate on Cyberbullying

A few weeks ago, a debate was going around on the Digital Natives listserv about bullying and its echoes in the digital world. Among the participants were danah boyd, Miriam Simun, David Weinberger, Gene Koo, and Sam Jackson.

danah boyd kicked off the discussion with this definition of bullying used in a Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) report:

As noted by Olweus (2001), “a student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more students.” The preceding definition highlights the aggressive component of bullying as well as the associated inherent power imbalance and repetitive nature. There are a wide range of behaviors consistent with bullying, including physical, verbal, and relational manifestations.

But as it turned out, even agreeing on a definition of bullying was tricky. The same study states that 30% of youth in the United States report involvement in moderate or frequent bullying, a number that David Weinberger found shocking. The problem, he surmised, was that bullying is being defined too broadly. Do teasing, social exclusion, and bullying all belong in the same category? Or do they represent starkly different motivations and different levels of severity?

In cyberspace, these distinctions between these behaviors become increasingly blurred. While the word bully most likely conjures up the big, mean kid who beats others up on the playground, cyberbullying is obviously not physical. Relational bullying or relational aggression – essentially emotional bullying that involves exclusion, gossip, lying, etc. Think Mean Girls – is especially prevalent among, not surprisingly, girls. Sam Jackson cited a study that 71.4% of girls and 21.1% of boys who experienced bullying were victims of relational bullying (Henington, Hughes, Cavell, & Thompson, 1998). This is also the same kind of bullying that is made easier online. Add this to the miscommunication implicit in online interactions versus face-to-face ones and you have a problem that is at once unique to the Internet yet grounded in real life social interactions.

The danger of lumping together all different forms of social intimidation like teasing and social exclusion into the serious category of bullying is distorting the severity of the problem. The debate then turned to education about bullying in schools, which both danah and David see as having adopted a loose definition of bullying. There are merits to this, of course, such as stopping teasing before it escalates into something more severe, but it also problematizes policies regarding real bullying. Gene Koo was pointed out that we also need to teach victims to deal with bullying: “Most people only know how to fight back, not how to change the power dynamic.” Kids should be taught conflict resolution.

Not surprisingly, the discussion constantly focused circled back to real world bullying. The Internet introduces new elements to the problem, but many of the basic issues are the same.

Further Reading: Pew Cyberbullying Report

-Sarah Zhang

MySpace Photo Leak

Until recently, MySpace had a serious security flaw that allowed photos of users whose profiles were set to private to be viewed by anyone. Two weeks ago, user called DMaul uploaded a 17 GB file of more than 500,000 private Myspace photos available for download on torrent sites. The file was the 9th most downloaded file on torrent sites that week.

According to Wired, the file quickly lost popularity after people realized it was a random collection of typical photos — weddings, babies, birthday parties. DMaul has come forward to explain his actions, saying “I think the greatest motivator was simply to prove that it could be done. It is ridiculous to think that there is privacy on public websites. These types of situations are more education than anything.” So DMaul’s actions indeed had no malicious intent, and they should by taken for their educational value.

The real kicker is that the security flaw was known on various message boards for months before it was fixed. What’s even more disconcerting is how this flaw was exploited. A thread on the discussion forum back in October consisted of a self-described “pedo army” sharing the private galleries of 15 and 16-year-old girls. There have even been YouTube videos and commercial websites touting this flaw. It was only after Wired broke the story that MySpace finally fixed the hole. I’m also surprised that despite a fair amount of coverage in the blogosphere, the story hasn’t made it into the mainstream news either.

MySpace has so far refused to comment on the situation, so it’s hard to say whether MySpace was unaware of the situation or was aware and didn’t act on it. Either way, the blame should lie with MySpace for flouting the privacy of its users for so long. While most teens are perfectly aware of the dangers of leaving their profiles open, there is the expectation that profiles set to private will indeed be private. Is this expectation rational in today’s world? Surely the millions of people who do their banking or shopping online would think so. Social networking sites should be taking the privacy of its users more seriously, especially when minors are concerned. It has been suggested that sites like MySpace need to create special task forces that will prowl the Internet looking for security flaws as they arise. When users have done their part to protect their privacy, MySpace should do its part too.

Frontline’s “Growing Up Online”: What about the digital dossier?

PBS recently aired “Growing Up Online” (and posted the entire episode on their website) – an inquisitive look into the lives of so-called Digital Natives.  The program presented a world of young people spending much of their lives immersed in digital media – constantly connected to friends and others via mobile phones and web sites such as MySpace and YouTube. These are the lives of young people who are the first generation to grow up online, or those “born digital”, to borrow the term from John Palfrey’s and Urs Gasser’s forthcoming book of the same title.  Frontline addressed several of the key issues the Digital Natives project is investigating, including education in the age of internet, online identity play, cyber-bullying, and online sexual predators.

While the documentary hinted at the types of creative expression and activity taking place online, the focus was very much on the risks associated with socializing on the internet.  Discussion of young people’s private lives, which are increasingly taking place online, touched upon the shifting notions of privacy among youth raised with a mouse in-hand, and a number of the issues regarding the wide and unknown audience they present themselves to.  Hats off to Frontline for taking a fair – and realistic – stance in addressing the sexual predator issue.  Despite media portrayal of sexual predators lurking behind every corner of the internet – NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” has quite a good hand in this – research is beginning to show that this is a seriously, and dangerously, overblown threat.  A Cal State study by Larry Rosen mentioned in the program found that young people on MySpace are rarely approached for sexual liaisons, and those that are tend to be seeking these types of interactions.  Our research on the Digital Natives project has supported these findings – the overwhelming majority of teens are very aware of sexual predator concerns and are incredibly savvy at navigating the internet and avoiding contact with creepy strangers.  In fact, most youth we spoke with largely avoid online contact with anyone they don’t know personally.

The risks associated with teens socializing online were further highlighted by Davina, a high school student interviewed who took part in a lunchroom fight that ended in chair-throwing and a video that proceeded to earn her YouTube fame.  Davina is now legitimately concerned that this video – and her behavior –  is now permanently available for all to see – including college admissions officers. While kids socialize in online spaces they often feel are out of the realm of adults, college admission officers and prospective employers are trolling sites like MySpace and Facebook, searching for evidence of illegal or unsavory hijinks to deny offers of admission or employment. A media blitz last spring highlighting stories of employers discriminating against college grads based on unsavory Facebook photos and police officers searching for evidence of underage drinking on MySpace, appears to have affected youth behavior, to a degree.  We have found that youth, particularly those attending more elite high schools and universities, are increasingly becoming wise to these issues. They are taking charge of their social networking sites’ privacy settings, or removing all together those frat-party videos that seemed so funny last Saturday night. A serious issue is the inequality of awareness we have found among the students we talked to – in more affluent schools, college counselors and teachers are adamantly warning students from the start to be careful what they post online, while students from lower performing schools were more likely to hear the warnings from after-school programs they were involved with, or else, wait for the warnings to be passed down from friends.

One issue of a life online which was completely ignored by Frontline is the digital dossier:  the accumulation of personal data collected as people use digital technology.  In focusing the program so heavily on social networking sites, it is surprising that there was no discussion of the repercussions of the availability and permanence of online personal data – not to sexual predators or college counselors, but in mass form, to service providers and marketers.  As teens socialize online they share photos, videos, blog posts and personal musings – all of this content is hosted by sites that wield enormous power over what they do with these data, and who they share them with.  As children grow up online – starting with NeoPets at 4, to MySpace at 14, to Facebook at 24 – they document everything, and leave this documentation in the hands of companies that have profit, rather than kids’ best interest, at heart. For example, Facebook collects information about users and then reserves the right to share all the amassed information with third parties.  When signed in to email or blogger, Google is keeping tabs on every search the user conducts.  In twenty years, marketers may know a six-year-old’s interests and habits better than he knows them himself.

Our research has shown that while many young people are disinterested about data collection issues, they are also largely unaware of what is being collected, how it is being used, and what the repercussions may be.  Some who are more aware, cite the inevitability of compromising their privacy if they are going to engage in the social world, which, for the 12-24 age group, has migrated online.  As one student we talked to – a particularly thoughtful high school senior – said “… anyone can have access to your stuff. [..] do you accept that because you participate in using internet and technology like that or is there a way to fight that and create ways in which you can keep stuff private and keep stuff yours? [..] People Google everything because they just think to. They don’t know where this information goes. They don’t know that [..] when you log on to certain sites [..] they keep track of [..] when you log on and what you write. [..] It’s the fact that people don’t know. ..There’s not enough transparency for young people to know and they participate very unknowledgeably. That’s what scares me because you don’t know what that will end up looking at later on.” Perhaps rather than focusing efforts on bills like DOPA that limit access to social sites in response to sexual predator fear, congress should focus on protecting the mass amounts of information service providers like MySpace and Facebook amass from the millions of young people that live their lives on these sites.

In spite of the current lack of attention among US lawmakers to these concerns, issues of privacy stemming from the use of new technologies are becoming increasingly relevant not only for digital natives, but for all citizens living online.   In Europe, stricter privacy laws are bringing more attention to these issues: the Council of Europe has organized the second annual “Data Protection Day” (January 28, 2008) marked by campaigns to raise awareness amongst middle school and high school students about how and why personal information is collected, and what is done with these data. As part of this initiative, the transatlantic privacy perspective will be discussed at Duke University Center for European Studies. Education about issues of privacy must be extended beyond fears of sexual predators and trolling college admission officers or potential employers.  The reality and implications of the widespread and largely unregulated collection and dissemination of private data must be taught to youth that spend so much time living and sharing online.  In order to be successful, this is an effort which must be undertaken by the many stakeholders involved – parents, schools, young people themselves, and policy makers. It is not only necessary to reform current laws in order to make service providers act responsibly in the collection and sharing of user data, but also to help young people understand the online world they inhabit, so that they may engage in knowledgeable and critical ways.

 – Corinna di Gennaro & Miriam Simun