PHILADELPHIA — Back in the mid-'80s, I thought I was clever for writing a very simple program on my dad's Apple computer. The outcome was an endless-loop printout, several pages long, of crass statements about a classmate that I took to school and randomly dropped in the halls. I was soon nabbed by the principal and suspended. Who knows what kind of trouble I would've gotten myself into if I'd had access to today's high-tech gadgets, which are more powerful and ubiquitous than previous generations of practical jokers ever dreamed of.
Schools around the country are starting to see a dramatic increase in the misuse of all kinds of technology, and it has caught a lot of us - both parents and educators - off guard. It's hard enough to keep track of kids while they're in the actual school building or at home. Now adults are being asked to monitor and discipline them in cyberspace, which kids can access just about anywhere, any time.
Technology has spawned a host of thorny problems but none more pernicious than the cyberbully - anyone who repeatedly misuses technology to harass, intimidate, or terrorize another person. Usually such bullying takes the form of inappropriate and hurtful e-mails, instant messages, or text messages, or website posts involving threats or rumors. Often the author is disguised as someone else.
But we're bracing for even nastier stuff with the arrival of the new line of camera phones that can instantly access the Web. It's now possible for a child to sneak into a bathroom or a locker room, snap a few pictures, and upload those pictures directly from the phone to a website. There, they can be viewed, downloaded, and archived by anyone with a computer connection to the Web. All this can be accomplished in seconds - a scary thought, both for the victim and for the perpetrator.
Despite technology's benefits - especially for educating young people - its instantaneous nature is a major downside and has revolutionized the possibilities for major and minor mischief. It has all but erased the reflection time that once existed between the planning of a silly prank - or a serious stunt - and its commission. Simultaneously, the power and speed of technology has made it nearly impossible to contain a regrettable deed - because once committed, there's almost no way to retrieve and destroy all evidence of it in cyberspace.
Schools, technology companies, and parents need to educate themselves and take responsibility for getting this growing problem under control.
Educators can start by addressing the issue head-on - which is difficult because most teachers are less techno-savvy than their students. Teens, for example, seem to have no problem writing a history paper with a cell phone going off in their laps, while carrying on pop-up instant message conversations in the margins of the computer screen with as many as 20 people. For those of us accustomed to doing one thing at a time, the ease with which the average teenager multitasks is daunting. But schools around the country need to expand computer instruction to include explicit rules governing the use of technology and warnings for would-be offenders. Educators should explain and demonstrate how each time the Internet is accessed, an IP (Internet Protocol) address is established (literally, 12 numerals punctuated by 3 periods - an electronic fingerprint) that can be used by the authorities to trace all electronic communications between computers and/or mobile phones. No computer or mobile phone - or its user - is really anonymous in cyberspace. Moreover, behaviors in cyberspace - yes, words are deeds - are downloadable, printable, and sometimes punishable by law. And kids need to hear this message, starting in middle school.
Schools should publish clear rules with respect to the use of technology in student handbooks and in literature sent home to parents. Schools should post this information on their websites and in classrooms, highlighting rules pertaining to cyberbullying and what to do if a student feels victimized. Kids need to feel safe, including in cyberspace. School officials need to follow up on all alleged cyber violations and have firm sanctions in place.
Companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL can help immensely by requiring a valid credit card or a social security number for all uses of their services, even if their services are free. It's irresponsible for companies like these to let people - anywhere in the world - use many of their powerful communication tools without any verifiable information about the user. It's like giving a kid a piece of chalk and saying: Write whatever you want on this global chalkboard, send it to whomever you want, and don't worry, we'll shield your identity until we receive a court order.
Parents, of course, have the most power and leverage - yet many who have no problem setting down rules when giving their kid a BB gun or a minibike go mum when the new computer or cellphone gets unveiled.
Parents need to be much more involved with how kids are using technology, starting with talks about the do's and don'ts of each new piece of technology brought into the home. These conversations should not begin and end with confrontations over the monthly cellphone bill. Parents should keep Web-accessible computers in the family room for as long as possible into their kids' teen years - and not squirreled away in the privacy of a bedroom.
While a parent's right to listen in and read children's electronic communications may be debatable, children should know that devices can be shut down or confiscated at the first sign of misuse. Put simply, parents should not tolerate in cyberspace behaviors they wouldn't tolerate in their homes.
Big Brother may not be watching, but mom, dad, teachers, and decisionmakers in the technology industry should be pretty darn close.
• Mark Franek is the dean of students at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia.