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PBS Show Moves Internet Safety Beyond Scare Tactics

In what can only be called a much more cerebral treatment of the world of kids online than ever before, PBS Frontline: Growing Up Online, which aired this week, invites us to explore the nuances of teen life online. In doing so it makes a clear case for every parent, teacher, and child to get up to speed with the frenetic pace of digital life.

In the show, the world of Facebook, MySpace, IM, cellphones, and cyber-friends as it affects kids’ daily lives is brought under the microscope. Frontline looks beyond the scary news headlines and those simplistic safety talks that go largely ignored by kids (never give out your name and address online). Instead it takes a much more subtle look at the Internet culture.

Yes, predators and pornographers will continue to make Internet life a tough haul for kids, but the vignettes that make up Growing Up Online is the stuff that debates should be made of:

Education: Teachers interviewed express both their hopes and concerns for the screen-agers in their schools. Hope that new technology will let students become more active participants in the learning process, concern that the constant showering of media in their lives has made them unable to process, analyze, and discuss. Most telling was a well-spoken boy who matter-of-factly told the reporters that he had not read a book since he could remember. For him, it was a matter of an overscheduled life. SparkNotes and paragraph summaries were simply all that his busy life allowed.

Online Persona: When she can’t fit in with life in her school, a teen creates a creative but very provocative online persona as a Goth model. A parent tips off the school when they stumble on her site. She becomes the shamed talk of the town, and her parents force her to delete her online persona. In the end, her parents, who seem all the wiser for it, come round to realizing that her online profile is her creative outlet. They come to embrace the web and their new, more open relationship.

Seeking Succor: An anorexic, but highly functioning, teen girl turns to web sites that put her in touch with other anorexics as they share information about how to conceal their activities from their parents, trade notes on not-eating, and honor the mantra of thin.

Parental Trust: A boy and his well intentioned but controlling suburban mom grow distant after his mom brings a drunken video of him and his classmates to the other parents’ attention. He assumes the brunt of his mom’s actions as the word gets out.

Worst Case: The most heartwrenching tale of the show was a dad and mom talking openly about the suicide of their then 13-year-old son, a result of intense cyberbullying. Kids at school constantly calling him a loser, an egger-on in cyberspace urging him to do it, web sites that spelled out instructions on how to do it, and a prank played by a girl who pretended to like him made the boy’s life unbearable.

The message of Frontline comes across loud and clear. Parents need to be aware that it’s poor cyber-habits and the little day-to-day things that hurt most of the kids most of the time. Kids can hurt themselves and each other on the web as much as any outside predator. The cyberworld, where instantaneous communications and the mood swings of teens meet, is a dangerous one indeed.

You can watch the show in its entirety online at PBS.