Teens wear their hearts on their blog

Teens wear their hearts on their blog

By Janet Kornblum, USA TODAY

At Myspace.com, 34 million users, mostly ages 14 to 34, post their interests, write blogs and set up ways to chat with friends.
Millions of teens who grew up with a mouse in one hand and a remote control in the other now pour out their hearts, minds and angst in personal online diaries.

At Myspace.com, 34 million users, mostly ages 14 to 34, post their interests, write blogs and set up ways to chat with friends.

And anyone with a connection — including
would-be predators — can have a front-row view of this once-secretive
teenage passion play.

Welcome to teen America — on display at your nearest computer.

Unprecedented
numbers of teens are using blogs — Web logs — to do what they once did
through personal diaries, phone conversations and hangout sessions:
cementing friendships with classmates, seeking new friends, venting,
testing social limits, getting support and getting all emo ("highly
emotional" in blog-speak).

 

"Blogs are basically reality TV for the Web," says Pete Blackshaw, with marketing analysis firm Intelliseek

"This is the new way kids interact," adds Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. "Fifty years ago, they borrowed their parents’ phones or made their own phones out of string and Dixie cups. Today they have their own cellphones, and they have their own computer accounts and Web pages and they have their own blogs.

"It’s part of life in the cyber age."

And it’s not just a handful of kids. At least 8 million teens blog, according to Intelliseek. The Pew Internet & American LifeProject, which plans to release a report on teens and blogging on Wednesday, estimates 4 millionteen bloggers. Those statistics were collected a year ago, and the numbers might be higher if you factor in not just blogs but the world of social websites, especially the booming MySpace, a hybrid site that allows people to post their personal interests, write blogs, put up video and set up ways to communicate with their friends. That site has exploded to 34 million users in just two years — and is dominated by 14- to 34-year-olds.

Blogs and social sites are so popular that many schools have banned them. Just last week a private school in New Jersey took it a step further, telling students to dismantle their personal Internet diaries or face suspension.

Scroll through teen pages on sites such as LiveJournal, Xanga and MySpace and see firsthand what the fuss is.

Advice for blogging:

Anything on the Internet is public. For safety, Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredExperts, and others recommend:

Treat everyone you meet online as if he were a stranger, even after you’ve traded information. Lying online is easy.
Leave out identifying information like your name, where you work and go to school.
Use e-mail addresses that don’t use your name and can’t be traced to your other online activity.
When possible, protect your information with passwords.
Obscure identities in pictures.
Post only stuff you wouldn’t mind seeing on a billboard.
Team up with a buddy to check each other’s sites for problems.
Teens under 13 should only blog with constant supervision.

 

Blog excerpts:

Brittany Eckert, 18, Peoria, Ariz., freshman at Glendale Community College:

"I
got my ears repierced today because they closed from the last time they
were done. Lati went with me which was fun. paddlebrains, you would
like her as well!
" All my little sisters are screaming all around
me and I think I might have to shoot myself soon. Wait, Jeanette just
brought in Krispy Kremes so I might have to try to cling to life for a
few minutes longer
"Apparently it’s homecoming week at GCC. Who
knew? I saw a little sign today saying how we’re supposed to dress up.
I don’t think anyone is going to."

Kristin Key, 19, East Lansing, Mich., sophomore at Michigan State University

"i am always in a hurry. what the hell am i rushing toward?
i never take the time to look around me, stop and appreciate my surroundings.
i’m always looking at tomorrow, plotting, planning, missing out on today.
that has always been a problem, i don’t know how to change things.
i just want a break.
take me somewhere."

Haley Satterfield, 16, Peachtree City, Ga.

"It’s
mostly late at night when I should be sleeping that all my frustrations
and irrational fears come to the surface. I have all these things
lurking deep in my mind and I don’t know what to do with them.
"I
still have insecurities about my looks. I don’t understand why I have
some days where I like the way I look, but most of the time I hate
everything about my face and my body.
" Yesterday, a girl with low
blood pressure passed out in the middle of lunch. I went over to see if
she was okay and took her pulse and temp, etc. Then I talked to her to
try to distract her from what happened while the school director called
her mother. Today the director told me how impressed she was with me
and said that I really need to go into the medical field. Maybe now
she’ll stop getting on me about dress code."

Teens
complain about parents and homework, using language that would make
Tony Soprano blush. They share daily dramas, post songs from the latest
bands, display pictures of themselves, sometimes wearing next to
nothing or taking bong hits. They write angst-ridden poetry, detail
supposed sexual exploits and complain about each other or offer
support. But mostly they simply relay the details of their daily lives.

Teens
are ecstatic, hooked and hopeful about the medium. Law enforcement
officials are wary. There have been cases where predators have found
kids who posted too much information about themselves. And parents —
those who actually know what their kids are doing online — are
"freaked," says Parry Aftab, executive director of online child safety
site WiredSafety.

"Parents look at this and
see the kids are talking about how they got drunk last weekend, how
they had sex last weekend, and using language that’s unbelievable."

Parents
should be concerned, especially when it comes to monitoring what kind
of personal information teens post, Aftab says. They regularly reveal
everything from where they go to high school to where they live, work,
play and study — all big no-no’s.

But she
says parents also should put what teens are doing in context. Teens
have always strayed outside boundaries; it’s what they do. It’s just
that before the Net, they did it in private.

"I’m
54 years old," Aftab says. "When I was 14, if my mother had the
technology to put a video camera on my shoulder and found out what I
did when she wasn’t around, I would still be grounded."

Says
Saffo: "Every new medium offers new nightmares for the parents of
teenagers. We all forget that once upon a time parents were alarmed
about their children reading dime-store novels."

But
the Internet is different from any other technology before it and
creates a whole set of unknowns: Do blogs isolate teens who have
serious problems such as depression, for instance? Should parents read
their kids’ online journals just because they can?

Girls, who dominate blogging, use it especially to talk about personal feelings.

Cassie
Lealamanu’a, 19, a Lewis & Clark College student living in
Portland, Ore., says her online friends "become almost like a kind of
psychologist. Instead of paying to go to a shrink, you just log onto
your blog and see what your friends say about things."

Teens like to be out there

"Teens
are so exhibitionist," adds Jenny Rypkema, a sophomore at Brandeis
University in Waltham, Mass. At 19, she has been blogging for four
years. "They are having huge identity problems, so they like to put out
some front to the world. They want to be out there."

Rypkema uses her blog to communicate with friends and as "a way to pour out my emotions."

When
she was younger, Rypkema made nearly everything public. These days, she
uses a popular blogging feature that allows her to restrict her
LiveJournal blog to friends. But most blogs are out there for anyone to
read.

While famous political bloggers have
thousands of readers, the reality is that most personal blogs are read
only by a handful of people — usually a tightly knit group of friends,
says Amanda Lenhart of Pew Research.

Rypkema
has about 120 readers — an unusually large amount for a personal blog —
and has actually met about a third of them. Still, Rypkema was
surprised — and angry — when her younger sister saw their dad reading
the blog.

"I feel like family and close
friends shouldn’t be reading my diary in secret," she says. "They have
an obligation to tell me. I would do the same for them. I don’t snoop
on their journals without telling them."

"If it had been a paper diary, I would never have opened it," says her father, Chris Rypkema, 53, a project manager in Seattle.

But
he adds, "Let’s face it: You put something out on the Web with
expectations that even complete strangers are going to come by and read
it. Why be surprised if your parent is going to take an interest in you
as an individual and wants to know more about you?"

Chris
Rypkema says at first he was just interested in safety but came to
enjoy his daughter’s writings, especially when she went to college.
"Her blog was a way I could keep in touch with her," he says. "Nobody
gave me permission to look at it. But nobody said I couldn’t." Since
his daughter asked him to stop reading, he respects her wishes. But he
misses it.

Experts are divided about whether and how parents should treat the journals — especially when it comes to teens over 13.

Some
say that if the journal is open online, it should be available to
parents. Others argue that reading journals is no different from
eavesdropping on their kids. Some argue that it’s a question of safety.
The vast majority of those online are simply seeking entertainment or
friendship. But occasionally strangers have something else in mind.

Last
month, for instance, a 16-year-old girl in Port Washington, N.Y., was
molested after a man with whom she exchanged a few online messages
tracked her down because she had listed her workplace on her MySpace
profile, says Port Washington Det. Sgt. Paul Gros.

Police
arrested a 37-year-old man, who he has been released on bail. But Gros
says this incident, among others, should serve as a wake-up call.

"As
great a tool as (the Internet) is, there are a lot of risks that go
along with it," he says. "Your freedom — and anonymity — isn’t what
people really believe it is when they use it. People may say it’s not
happening all the time. Just be the victim of it once. Then it happened
too many times."

While kids and parents
should take precautions, most experts say banning teens from blogging
is as enforceable as keeping them from their friends. Launching a new
site takes as little as five minutes.

"Unless
you deal with it, it’s going up someplace tomorrow," Aftab says. And
taking away the world of personal sites might be akin to taking away
their friends; the Internet is sometimes the only social gathering
place for teens who aren’t allowed to hang out in public spaces because
of safety reasons, says Danah Boyd, a social researcher at Yahoo
Research Berkeley.

"They’re not allowed to
go into the physical world," she says. "They’re not allowed to go out
at night. (Their) mobility is so restricted. It is really replacing
physical interaction."

It all comes down to trust

Regardless
of the reason, with 87% of all teens online, according to Pew’s latest
numbers, the Internet is as much a part of teen life as cars, TV or
music.

And with video gaining popularity online, "forget it," Aftab says. "Your kids are going to have their own television shows."

Saffo
predicts kids and parents will "work it out. It’s going to be the usual
round of kids getting grounded or getting their schools (angry) at
them. But that’s not so different than what’s happened in the past. I’m
more concerned about parents overreacting than about kids making huge
mistakes."

Adds Boyd: "My advice to parents is you need to work on trust-building. Trust-building will get you through."

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