Schools grapple with policing students' online journals
This winter, teenagers at a Chicago high school used their Xanga websites to post obscene and threatening comments about a teacher, in one case suggesting her neck be "slit like a ... chicken."Skip to next paragraph
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Last spring, a girl at a different Chicago high school outraged students when she posted derogatory comments about gay marriage and blacks on her Web log.
The school district dealt differently with the two situations, defending the girl's freedom of speech in the latter while reportedly disciplining the three teens in the first.
The incidents speak not only to the murky territory of free speech in schools but to the challenges of educating in a cyber age - particularly with the growing presence of Web logs or blogs, those online pages that millions of teens use for journals, photos, dating, or chats.
The worries range from the serious - student safety and cyberbullying - to the mundane, minimizing gossip and protecting students from embarrassment. Some schools are trying to restrict access to the sites, or are holding sessions to educate both parents and students on proper guidelines.
But drawing a line between free speech and misuse can be tricky, and blog proponents caution that there are plenty of positive ways to use the medium.
"We're a little quick to respond in part because this is such a new phenomenon, and it involves the Internet," says Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "You can't blame school administrators for being fairly sensitive about these things. What's happening is that in so many domains in our professional and personal lives we're having to reestablish some boundaries in regard to the Internet."
Blogs are still unfamiliar to less computer-savvy adults. But a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project showed that 1 in 5 kids between the ages of 12 and 17 - about 4 million - keeps a blog. About twice that many regularly read them.
"It's replaced the mass e-mail or even the phone chat," says Amanda Lenhart, one of the researchers on the Pew study. "They use them to reinforce the connections they have."
Few teens refer to the pages as blogs, says Ms. Lenhart, calling them by their brand names - Xanga, MySpace, LiveJournal, and Facebook are the most common. And some experts say blogging is a misnomer since, rather than keeping journals, the teens are engaging in social networking.
Go to a site, find a school, and click randomly on a few names - michizzle, PaPi chULO, Swimmer4Ever - and a world clearly not intended for adults emerges. Girls talk about their ideal guy and post provocative photos. Profanity and cyberslang are rampant. Kids discuss parties and alcohol, the teachers and other kids they hate, or engage in inane chats: "How R U? I miss u gurl."
"The key thing is that young people appear to be totally oblivious to the fact that everything they post in these sites is public, permanent, accessible from throughout the world, and easily transmittable to anybody," says Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use in Eugene, Ore. When adults read the sites, "teens argue that you're invading my privacy," Ms. Willard says. "That's just the point. It's not private."
Some kids use blogs for class assignments, thoughtful journals, or outlets for creativity. The worries come when teens post too much personal information - their real names, addresses, e-mail, schools - not realizing it is also available to stalkers or child predators, or when they use the sites to pick on other kids, reaching more people than old-fashioned bullying ever could.
"Kids used to pass notes around in school," says Parry Aftab, director of Wiredsafety.org. "Now they're putting it onto pages with 42 million users."