The other night I went to a talk at my daughter’s high school by Dr. Meyran Boniel-Nissim. Boniel-Nissim is a Haifa University researcher on teen internet usage and its psycho-social connotations.
In the old days, teens had to get out of the house to get into trouble. Now they can do it from the comfort of their bedrooms. Parents think that as long as they know where their children are, everything is fine. But the reality is different.
Teens know more about cyber-space than adults. Only a handful of the hundred or so parents in the room had a Facebook acount. So they don’t come to us with their questions and problems. The anonymity of the net allows teens, especially girls, to try out different personalities on the anonymous net. And while teens may be reticent at home, according to Boniel-Nissim they all pour out their hearts to strangers online.
Parents don’t have a clue. In an Israeli study of 500 teens and their parents, each pair was asked about the teens’ internet behavior. 70% of teens described themselves as consumers of porn. Only a small percentage of the parents thought their children viewed porn.
Facebook is a popular site for teens. They want to appear popular, especially when they first join. So they are quick to accept friends, but they allow access to personal information. Impersonating a real-life friend by stealing a profile picture is easy too.
Some parents think they are safe because they have “friended” their children to keep an eye on their activities. But some teens have two accounts, one for show and one for their real activities.
We’ve all heard the stories of cyber-bullying and it has even led to suicide. A teen can wake up one morning to find epithets and unflattering pictures on her wall, and a friend count back at zero.
Teachers in the audience shared disturbing stories. In one case, students used a cellphone to take embarrassing pictures during gym class. Then they uploaded them to Facebook. Others made up a quiz, “Which [insert name of school] Teacher are You,” with multiple-choice questions based on clothing and other personal quirks.
Boniel-Nissim considers cyber-violence to be equivalent to real-life abuse, and recommends reporting it to the police. Apparently it’s illegal to upload pictures without permission from the subject, and someone who refuses to take them down can be prosecuted. But that is a privacy issue, not cyber-violence. Hacking into computers, which is apparently common and easy, is also an issue of privacy and perhaps theft. It is certainly an attack and should be illegal, but I still can’t see it as the same as physical abuse.
Bullying, ostracism, embarrassing your classmates and making fun of your teachers have been with us long before the internet. It’s true that the public nature and speed of the internet take these cruel behaviors to a different level. But I am not sure what cyber-violence is, and how a judicial system could rule on it. You can’t hit someone via the internet. You can threaten someone with violence, but you can do that in the newspaper or by anonymous letter. So the same rules should apply.
I’ve asked Meyran, my newest Facebook friend, to respond with more examples. In the meantime, I’d like to hear your opinion:
- How is bullying different on the internet than in real life? At what point, if any, should it become a crime?
- Is there such a thing as cyber-violence?
- How do you help your teens to deal with all of this, if they are on the net?
Meyran is skeptical about internet filters because they can’t block one-on-one interaction, which is the main source of the difficulties.
Whether our kids are on the internet or not, there is only so much we can protect them. With teens there’s no substitute for communication, awareness, education, and setting limits.