Sunday, February 05, 2006

Dad, how dare you read my xanga?

Kids are using blogs in ways that make their parents’ and teachers’ hair stand on end [1]. They give out personal information to all comers, post sexy pictures of themselves, and make racist comments that they’ll regret in a job interview ten years down the line.

One would have thought that the Internet generation would be more savvy about the medium they’re grown up with. According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (PDF) more than half of teens aged 12-17 create content for the Internet, and about 1 in 5 keep a blog [2]. However, even kids behave as if the Internet is a physical medium, rather than a universally accessible and indelibly permanent abstraction. It shows that the innate mental models we’ve evolved over millennia in small social groups will trump an intellectual understanding of the digital world – even among the young.

Some excerpts from the Monitor story illustrate the point. Kids model their web communications as taking place in physical proximity with physical means, where privacy can be assumed:

"The key thing is that young people appear to be totally oblivious to the fact that everything they post in these sites is public, permanent, accessible from throughout the world, and easily transmittable to anybody," says Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use in Eugene, Ore. When adults read the sites, "teens argue that you're invading my privacy," Ms. Willard says. "That's just the point. It's not private."


"Kids used to pass notes around in school," says Parry Aftab, director of "Now they're putting it onto pages with 42 million users."

They are also modeling the web as being as ephemeral as the physical world, and having the same short memory that people do:

Bernard Piel, a history teacher and assistant to the dean at Norman Thomas High School in New York, recently talked to a student who posted provocative photos. "I want you to imagine that you're 24 years old, you're trying to get a job somewhere, HR does a background check, and these things come up," he told her.

It turns out that it’s not just 40-something executives that have to be constantly reminded not to write anything they wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.


[1] Schools grapple with policing students' online journals, Christian Science Monitor, 2 February 2006 (fee may be required for archive content)

[2] The Monitor points out that kids don’t call them blogs. Rather, they use their brand names: Xanga, MySpace, LiveJournal, and Facebook are the most common.