One day in 1998 when my mother picked me up from school, she was carrying a large white envelope. I was in 10th grade and had applied to join the Spirit of America National Honor Band, a group of young musicians from around the country that toured Europe each summer. The envelope contained the group’s decision.
“Remember, you’re younger than most members of the band, so if you don’t make it this year we will just reapply next year,” my mom said to me as I tore into the package. Inside were several pages of multi-colored paper, but sitting on top was a patriotic-looking letter from the director. I read the first word, “Congratulations,” and my body flooded with excitement.
A few months later I was getting off a plane in Frankfurt, Germany, one of the youngest of a 150-member group touring with just a handful of adults. We were given just three rules for the trip: Be at dinner together in the hotel each night; Be in our rooms by curfew (usually 11pm), and be on the bus in the morning at the time designated. Apart from that, I was free to explore Europe without supervision as a 16-year-old inexperienced and naïve boy.
That amount of freedom at such a young age could ruin some kids’ lives. Lucky for me, I was mostly able to avoid trouble. But today, that same amount of freedom, or perhaps even more, is easily accessible to teens or even children without ever leaving their bedrooms.
The Internet provides an opportunity to explore the world and, because social media is so ubiquitous, offers the ability to communicate with anyone at any time in any part of the world. This is an awesome privilege, just as exploring different European cities was for me as a teen, but with it comes some very serious dangers.
Because I work in digital media, I constantly experiment with new tools online. One trend that has seen explosive growth in the last couple years is live-streaming, using a webcam to broadcast live, usually to complete strangers. This is a neat tool that allows users to meet new people and organizations to extend their reach by inviting people from around the world to attend events or meetings without the hassle of traveling. But like most things, there is a dark side.
Stickam.com is the most popular live-streaming site for teens with about 9 million users. After registration, a user is given a “room” that can be basically customized -- a lot like Facebook. With the click of a button, a user can broadcast from her/his webcam to the world. As other users troll the site looking at single images of “who’s live” they decide which show to watch. The fact that the decision to watch someone is made from a single image is telling enough as to the potential for meaningful connections. And because users know they will get more viewers with a compelling profile image, they customize it in ways that make it stand out. For many teens, this often means posing in a sexually suggestive manner.
If you enter one of the rooms on Stickam (or any one of the other live-streaming websites such as Blogtv.com or Ustream.com), you’ll quickly find nearly-anonymous users who are chatting via an AOL-style chat room with the user who is broadcasting live. Very often (more often than not, actually) teenage girls in these chat rooms are asked repeatedly and aggressively to do sexual things, to strip, pose, kiss, or more depending on how accommodating the girl is to the requests. When given the prospect of attracting more viewers, many of these girls oblige without thinking of the long-term consequences.
Online predators are familiar with ways to save and share these broadcasts. A cursory Google search reveals that these once live broadcasts are archived on pornography websites, forever preserving the mistakes of teens, sure to haunt them in the future.
There has been a lot of criticism of these sites, Stickam especially, in the recent years as they’ve become so popular. The New York Times found that the company that owns Stickam.com, Advanced Video Communications, is owned by Wataru Takahashi, a businessman who also owns DTI Services, a network of websites offering live sex shows. Despite these revelations, it is nearly impossible to govern the actions of users on a site that allows users to post content in a live environment. For example, it is as simple as a single click to lie about your age in order to create an account, and retroactively deleting the accounts of those who abuse any terms of service does little to stop the lasting consequences of some of these actions. Some sites like BlogTV have separated their underage users from their 18+ users so that the two can’t interact. Unfortunately, predators easily circumvent the age barrier by simply posing as a teenager.
Traveling around Europe as a 16-year-old boy was a life-changing experience for me. The freedom I was afforded allowed me to gain confidence as I navigated foreign streets, sampled unidentifiable foods, and managed what seemed then like Monopoly money. I got lost, I drank alcohol (legal in Europe at 16), and I even got robbed once. But despite the dangers, that freedom in many ways defined who I am today. Likewise, the web, with all of its scary corners and potential dangers, is a wonderful thing. Teens should be allowed to explore and experiment, to get lost and even discover what we wish they wouldn't. But parents must understand just how much freedom the web provides in order to set productive boundaries that protect teens.
The solution is not to forbid the use of these tools, but to teach users how to handle the freedom they offer. Further, simple things can be done in the home to safeguard your teenager. Ask your teens to leave their doors open when they are using the computer, or just keep a computer in a family room rather than in their bedrooms. Allow your kids to explore the web, but keep aware of emerging trends so that you can help them navigate their online life safely. And I think the single best way to protect your children is to communicate, to ask them questions about what they find and what they are doing on the web, to make them feel as if they can share with you when some creep asks them to remove their clothes in a chatroom.
The Ish is a video series exploring youth culture and issues produced by JJIE.org.
Here is the study: http://bbc.in/qc3Xde
The Ish is a weekly series by JJIE.org that explores youth culture. This week's episode looks at the surge of the printed book among young adults.
Our digital communication team announced it will run a six-week contest on our Facebook page with a chance to win a $100 gift card and a JJIE VIP Swag Pack. The contest began Aug. 11, 2011 and will continue until Sept.14, 2011.
Entering is really simple. Just “like” the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange page (http://www.facebook.com/JJIEga,) answer one question (which is not required), and then tune in to the Ishto see if you won.We've seen a lot of growth over on Facebook, and we'd like you to join that community. Head on over now. If you're not already a fan of the page, you'll be taken directly to this week's question. If you are already a part of our Facebook community, click on the "See Saw" tab on the left navigation menu.
It was 5:34am when the hideous screech of the alarm finally woke me up. My wife was already in the kitchen on her second cup of coffee, clutching her iPad with determined eyes fixed to the screen. I kissed her on the head before pouring myself a cup as she glanced up at me quickly and without a word. Something wasn't right.
"Whatcha reading," I asked casually in an effort to seem unaware of her obvious discomfort.
"Have you seen the news," she countered.
I looked over her shoulder at the article she was reading. The headline jumped off the…paper, stabbing my eye as the roof above me crumbled.
"ROCK FIGHT KILLS 5, PRESIDENT BANS ALL GRAVEL DRIVEWAYS AND ROADS"
I stood speechless as she put her head in her hands. We had spent our entire adult lives running a rock quarry, and in an instant our livelihood was stripped from us because some thugs used an otherwise valuable resource for evil. But I couldn't be upset with the decision of the president. I mean, I value life. No one should die that way.
Does this story seem ridiculous to you? It should. But it isn't far from what is currently happening in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister David Cameron gave police the authority to shut down the Blackberry, Twitter and Facebook networks in order to keep rioters -- apparently the overwhelmingly majority of them young people -- from organizing. My question, and I think the question we should be asking of leaders who insist on condemning social media without understanding it, is: what exactly are we condemning?
Martin Luther started a revolution that exposed exploitative practices of the Catholic church in the 16th Century that depended greatly on new technology, namely the printing press. His movement was propagated by pamphlets printed in several languages that informed citizens and debunked myth. Similarly, many would argue that the French Revolution wouldn't have happened without the printing press. Do we ban all forms of printing in an effort to avoid dissent? Do we ban gravel roads because rocks are easy weapons?
Books, radio, television and landline telephones have all been used as tools for communication that allowed individuals to share ideas, good and bad. And with each technological advance there has been an effort to suppress the lay citizen's access to the medium. Remember when churches used to burn books because they were seen as evil for challenging deeply held ideologies? Oh yeah, that is still happening.
Despite our best efforts, marginalized citizens will eventually find a way to organize. It has happened in almost every society in history. And what have we learned? Not to understand the usually legitimate complaints of the protestors, not to address the social issues that lead to disenfranchisement, but to react instinctively and strip dissenters of their rights.
I do not condone the violence that has taken place in the U.K., and I forcefully condemn those who are causing damage. But I also condemn leaders around the world and the media for not thoughtfully exploring the possible causes of agitation that led to this unfortunate display of anger and desperation.
And I'll give a warning to anyone that thinks a temporary ban on communication services and a violation of a person's freedom of speech is warranted in these situations: just because someone can't access Twitter doesn't mean she/he is going to give up. As we have seen in Libya, it is likely to cause even more anger. An all-out ban on something that may or may not have been used for "evil" is not only an assault on basic freedoms, but also a simplistic (non)solution to a much deeper problem.
This is episode 1 of The Ish, a weekly video series examining youth culture and the issues impacting young people. Check in each Thursday for a new video, and don't forget to head over to Facebook to enter our sweepstakes to win $100 and a JJIE VIP Swag Pack!
Next week we're launching a new weekly video called the Ish. No plans, no format. Just exploring youth culture.
For the next 6 weeks we'll also be drawing a name at the end of each episode from people who entered a sweepstakes on our Facebook page. Go enter and you could win $100.