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Kids Spin Out On The Web

SHE used to be a pretty-in-pink princess, a ballerina, filling her bedroom with stuffed toys and posters.
At 14, she's awkward and feels unattractive so adopts an extreme style pale, death-mask make-up and black clothing. She looks like a wilted plant.
You can't talk to her about anything much because she's so far into acting the part.
The truth is, she can't describe how she feels even to herself. She misses you but has said so many hurtful things she doesn't believe you could or should really love her any more.
She's overwhelmed by social pressures and schoolwork and she can't imagine any kind of future employment that would be in the least bit interesting.
This evening she knows she should be accessing the internet to research a school project.
Instead, she logs on to a website MySpace, or YouTube or the free messaging service for Windows program users, MSN.
Her website identity is deliberately provocative. The photo she supplies suggests she's much older.
Immediately, the website invites her to meet some "Cool New People". One of them appears to be dressed similarly and lives nearby. This new friend has other friends who "invite" her into their real-time conversations. The screen becomes their confessional more "real" than anything else in their lives.
Her best friend from primary school was an early developer. She's "hot" part of the in-group, the kids from various private and state schools in the same district, who socialise on weekends.
They still prefer to drink at parties rather than take drugs. They're sexually active without having intercourse.
This group is reliant on mobile phones to arrange social calendars, organise transport and photograph and video the events.
This evening our second girl knows she, too, should be accessing the internet to research a school project.
Instead, she has logged onto a "hosted" website where every service is free if you can find your way through the maze of advertising.
She downloads a digital recording from her mobile phone. She adds a title page to her video "slut", she types and emails her friends to join her online.
Gleefully, they download vision of a schoolmate performing a sex act. The video can be accessed by anybody who knows where to find it and before long it's been widely distributed among "the group".
The victim is devastated, as are her parents after the school counsellor makes them aware of the situation. There's nowhere to hide, no chance of relocating and starting afresh, such is the reach of the media which dominates these lives. If you don't understand how it works, you can't understand the power it holds.
Mobile phones and the internet provide everything a teenager needs information, communication, entertainment and a secret haven from adults.
It is very much their world. They've grown up with new media and they use it brilliantly.
Manipulation comes naturally to adolescents and this is the first generation which has been handed such an appropriate tool.
THESE stories are anecdotal, but ask any high school student or teacher and they'll tell you they're pretty close to the mark.
Well, really, you say. Where's the real harm?
You may like to put that question to the two Adelaide school communities going about their end-of-year activities with heavy hearts, and the four local families facing Christmas without their teenage children.
Three students from one high school took their lives this year, as did another from a nearby independent school.
Death through suicide is never detailed in the media, but it's the reason police and educationalists are publicising their investigations into "internet secret societies" and so-called cyber-bullying.
Police believe there may be a link between at least two of the tragedies, aside from the fact that the kids were all very young, and much loved.
There's nothing wrong with a group of like-minded individuals meeting in cyberspace unless they're selling something illegal or plotting violence.
And although it's a criminal offence to post pornographic or abusive images and messages via the internet, it's hard to investigate and harder still to prosecute.
Websites ask visitors to declare their ages and identities, but it's impossible to check their accuracy.
If the law is no deterrent and schools can't control what happens after hours, we need to look at what's happening at home.
If you have an adolescent, chances are your school will have provided advice for managing internet access. Did you understand it? Did you dismiss it out of hand as irrelevant? More information will be distributed early next year, after government and independent schools meet over the summer break.
Only a brave parent dares to approach the dark tunnel of adolescence.
I'm not being flippant when I suggest you approach via the internet. Arm yourself with knowledge. Remove the mystery.

When it ends in tears

If you consider email to be the new postal system, Microsoft's free messaging system, MSN, is the equivalent of swapping notes in class.
My 11-year-old and I installed MSN earlier this year so he could chat with school friends. It's no big deal, I reasoned; a bit like a conference call. They'll talk about homework and tell weak jokes.
I activated the privacy option which limited my son's exposure to those whose email addresses were entered in the computer's address book. But soon there seemed to be an awful lot of contributors to the conversation.
Were they all from school? Well, a mate's cousin wanted to join in so my son added his email address to our computer list. The cousin brought in another friend. So much for safeguards.
It wasn't long before the girls caught on, deftly replacing the boys' toilet humour with a daily soap opera which ended in tears, of course, after Miss X took a cruel and public swing at Miss Y.
There were notes sent home and as soon as the adults got involved, the activity lost its appeal.
But I guarantee the dominant students will find other ways to entertain their entourages by exploiting weaker characters be they peers or even teachers.
Free sites such as MySpace, YouTube, Piczo and Bebo offer direct messaging as well as "rooms" to visit or host, personalised with photos, videos or journals (blogs), created with the confidence that comes from operating behind a keyboard. You never have to look anyone in the eye.
I've spent the week exploring hosted sites. I've admired some brilliant creations and met some dodgy characters one wearing nothing but a sock on his old fella.
I've guaranteed I'm older than 14 and I will "respect US law" but I could be younger or someone else entirely.
If you're not sure how to take the trip, most libraries can help you get online. I'm sure your school would offer some advice. Maybe you could ask your child.

Sunday Mail (10-12-2006)
Anne Johnson

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