Sunday, November 23, 2008

Webcams Don't Kill People; Things That Can Actually Kill People Kill People

The recent suicide of a Florida teenager that took place on a webcam while others online apparently egged him on is likely to stir further calls for the regulation of social media, although the family of the deceased may not have the political traction that catapulted Suzy's Law to public attention and generated outrage about the Usenet group.

Unfortunately, the question of whether or not we control young people's access to guns or prescription drugs rarely gets as much media attention. The sordid webcam suicide story, which was covered on CNN and Fox and headlined the New York Post, appeals to tabloid sensibilities, which have been following this week's trial of the MySpace suicide case with similar interest.

Newspaper stories like "Cruelty, cowardice in an online world," which appeared in The Los Angeles Times, are designed to make authoritative pronouncements based on anecdotal evidence and nullify the findings of researchers who are pointing to the Internet's positive effects, as documents released in connection with a recent large-scale MacArthur Foundation study seem to show, by making the cyber-bullying argument. The column opens by raising parental adrenaline in the first sentence.

Parents who felt relieved by the study released this week showing that long hours trolling the Internet can actually improve the social skills of teens might also consider the murkier message being delivered now in a Los Angeles courtroom.

The copy ends on an equally mixed-message note:

Still, I agree with the study's finding: We can't protect our children by standing guard. In fact, we do them a disservice if we try to lock them out of the "common culture" in this increasingly technological world.

But we ought to pay more attention to how it all works because the public nature of their online world makes the lessons they learn and mistakes they make more consequential than they were in my day.

My daughters survived their own online crisis when they were about Megan's age -- but that was a generation ago in computer years. Now online access is so pervasive there are even more ways to hurt yourself and others.

As my girls got older, I learned to trust them to navigate. I've never been on Facebook or even seen their MySpace pages.

That's about to change.

Warning to my daughters: Get ready to "friend" me. Because Mom feels the need to have a Facebook page.

In other words, this parent argues that her children survived online crises without her intervention and had earned her trust over time, but -- irrespective of the evidence presented by her own childrens' behavior -- this mother has decided to invade their private cyberspace.

I think that the LA Times' Sandy Banks is missing one of Ito's larger points about expertise and -- by extension -- how the Internet can facilitate intergenerational communication that may be stymied by enforcing a one-way surveillance paradigm that ignores the very real possibility that a mom may act irresponsibly with a Facebook page as well, which may be the real message of the MySpace suicide case, since a parent was the main aggressor.

Instead, why not take advantage of the collective intelligence that the Internet offers by discussing things like Internet ephemera at the dinner table? This week my younger son is entranced with the physics simulation Fantastic Contraption and the variety of user-generated solutions posted online, and my older son is captivated by music in the public domain, much of which was collected by ethnomusicologists and other field recorders in the American South, some of which is archived at Save Our Sounds, where he would like to intern this summer. Like most people online, I think that my children would rather have my sincere interest and attention to their independent online research than an unwelcome friending in which the discursive exchanges would be a burden.

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