Saturday, November 17, 2007

No Privacy Zone

The fight over exactly how to regulate an out of control technology is only going to get uglier, if this report I found on Drudge is any indication.

The tragedy, of course, is that this sort of thing was so very preventable. A young 13 year old girl makes a virtual "friend" and develops an emotional relationship. A month later she is told that this virtual friend wants nothing to do with her, and is accused of being (among other things) fat, a slut, and finally a bad person that the world would be better off without. This last message has not been retrieved by police.

Worse yet, "Josh" was created by a woman who lived down the street and was typed by the woman, her daughter, and "another person." The woman wanted to "gain Megan's confidence" to see what, exactly, Megan was saying about her own child.

Thus the internet becomes less a social networking device, and more a legalized form of psychological warfare that, in this case, utterly destroyed the targeted family. The girl is now dead, and her parents have separated. Legal actions are threatened and the community is moving to institute child endangerment and harrassment protection for internet related problems.

As a long-time user of the internet and its wealth of knowledge and information, I have seen both sides of the "social networking" aspects of this extremely public arena. Mrs. Woody and I found each other online after separating from my first wife, but that's not the whole story. Mrs. Woody and I had known each other as teenagers (waaaaay before the internet was even a twinkle in Al Gore's eye). We had gone our separate ways since graduation, and it certainly wasn't the internet that convinced me that Mrs. Woody was the only woman for me. I knew who she was as a teenager, and she had always been someone I would have considered for eternal companionship even in my addled teenage years. No, in this case the internet merely expedited something that might have happened anyway.

But the internet definitely helped dissolve my first marriage. My ex and I discovered the addictive nature of "social networking" and the problems it can cause. Granted it was only one aspect of our divorce, but a significant one. The dark side of the internet.

Since Mrs. Woody and I have both had online experience and seen the seamier effects of this technology in the lives of others, we have declared the internet a "No Privacy Zone" in our home. In other words, for as long as the girls are living in this house, and young enough to be considered under our "control," (a term any parent knows to be ephemeral at best) they will not have the luxury of having entirely private relationships on the internet. Even the ones they do develop will be subject to the same rules of safety and etiquette that we would expect from any relationships they may form in the physical world. In other words, if any friendship — real or virtual — leads to any clandestine behaviors, there will be consequences.

Being homeschoolers, we have a couple of advantages. Firstly, we know what our kids are up to at school. There is no guess-work involved; the girls have wonderful friends through Church and our homeschool group, and we know the families of these friends. When they get together with these friends, we have confidence that they are reasonably safe. We give them more leeway as they prove their trustworthiness, and reel them back in whenever trust becomes an issue.

The second advantage is our ability to detect changes in personality. When Jelly started becoming just a bit moodier, we were able to determine that she's beginning to feel the effects of those wonderful hormones that all kids will experience. Since her life is an open book to us, we were able to see that change and determine how best to deal with it. (Mostly I sit on my bed in a fetal position and whimper a lot. Mrs. Woody handles it better.)

The hardest part of Megan's story is that her Mom and Dad were actually aware of this virtual friend. They had even counselled her on some of the meaner things that were said. Megan, however, appears to have had some emotional issues, and a depressed person can easily make the jump from reasonable to extreme with only minor provocations. Her access to the virtual world needed more controls, although it is easy to second-guess someone else's decisions.

I am not one to try to find a legal solution for every problem. Especially when, as a parent, I have the ability to shape and mold my children. This is not the responsibility of the world or even my local community. That responsibility is solely my own and Mrs. Woody's. We cannot and do not abdicate that responsibility to anyone else. Not the church. Not a public school. They can assist me, but it is not their responsibility. I don't let my girls do things just because "everyone else is doing it." If millions of kids are into social networking without parental control, that becomes the poorest of reasons to let my children do it.

Criminal, one might say.

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