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Anti-Social Networks?

For teens, Cyberland isn’t all about meanness and bullying. Some teachers see bright things happening on the Web.

When Monday morning rolls around at New Canaan High School, Principal Tony Pavia braces for the worst. Somewhere in town over the weekend, one kid trash-talked another kid, the parents got wind of it, and then, sure as sunrise, the school gets hauled into the picture to help straighten it out.

The difference is, it all happened online. “I call it cyber-meanness,” says Pavia. “I’m reluctant to call it bullying, because not all of it is. I call it the new bathroom wall—except it can travel all over the place. Most of the time parents bring it to us. Like it or not, the school is going to have to get involved. You can have entire groups of kids at odds.”

There is presently a battle being waged for the cyber-soul of the student body at New Canaan High. On the one hand, Pavia and other administrators are fretting over the “double-edged sword” of online social networks and the crazy things that happen when antsy kids start Photoshopping on a Friday night. Then, on the other hand, is the rising influence of young teachers who believe that the new tools of Web 2.0 are just fantastic and can raise students to a whole new level of learning.

All of this is happening in the midst of one of the most baffling cases of online aggravation local authorities have seen— that of Teri Buhl, thirty-eight, a local journalist who created a false Internet identity in order to expose teen drinkers but seemed most interested in exposing her boyfriend’s teenage daughter. She now faces charges of second-degree harassment and second-degree breach of peace.


Pavia pronounces the case “just downright bizarre.” But it may yet end up being an instructional story, one that his staff will have to teach along with stories about drugs and alcohol.

The Monday morning cases usually get triggered by some variation of antisocial networking. Pavia says, “The danger is that it’s instant, it’s immediate. If a kid has a gripe with another kid, they can press a button and it’s gone before they had a chance to think about it. So in essence it’s taken away the filter of time and reflection.” 

All the new technology we shower on kids makes going crazy so very easy. The new high-tech phones make silliness a breeze. Pose for a picture; snap it; e-mail it—all done in a matter of seconds. Will that same photo be the centerpiece of a website devoted to photos of ex-girlfriends, and then tomorrow be spotlighted in the daydreams of the loneliest guy in Kyrgyzstan? Well, possibly, now that you ask.

Not your daughter, you say? A survey of teenage girls was conducted by Dr. Mary Muscari, a researcher at Long Island’s Binghamton University. In her study, published in Medscape’s Public Health and Prevention Journal, it was found that 20 percent of teens had either sent or posted online nude or seminude photos or videos of themselves.

The latest online playground for young romantics is ChatRoulette, which was started by a Russian teenager. In this version of speed-dating, the computer’s on-board camera, or a Skype lens, takes the user’s picture and beams the image randomly to other subscribers. If this perfect stranger, who could be in Iceland or Altoona, chooses to talk with you, you might get some random talk—or a startling flash of body parts. Or you’ll be rejected as the stranger hits the “next” button and goes on to the next player, hence the term “nexted.”

So it’s a whole new world, and Michelle Luhtala, library chair at New Canaan High, wants her fellow teachers to master it. She knows cyber-bullying is a huge issue, as teenagers (just like adults) are far more aggressive online than they are face-to-face. But, she says, “we also have the ability to track back through IP addresses and go through all kinds of information that’s digitally followed. Even if it was done in a sneaky and anonymous way, most kids will cave and tell the truth. They’ll rat each other out—you can usually get to the source.”

New Canaan Police Youth Officer Carol Ogrinc has sifted through dozens of cyber-bullying cases, and she’s worried about all the kids who don’t report abuse. “Kids are either afraid or they’re intimidated or maybe they don’t want to have less access to the computer—they’re worried about getting punished because their parent’s reaction would be to limit their computer use.” Officer Ogrinc sighs. “You can’t discount the importance of social networking, but kids do get hurt.”

“Viral is scary,” agrees Luhtala, who is pushing emerging tech classes at the school. But she wonders how much of the cyber-bullying issue is really just plain old emotional wounding in high-tech garb. “Social media gets scapegoated a lot because it’s easy to scapegoat what you don’t understand.

“I am shocked—shocked—at how little my colleagues know about social media,” she thunders. “They have such a fear factor—‘Oh, I’d never do that!’—rather than learn about it. That’s not constructive.”

She is less worried about cyber-bullying and sexting than she is about kids who live in two worlds—the online world that excites and interests them, and the old-fashioned school world that bores the heck out of them. “They can use Facebook for creativity. They’ve embraced this as a participatory, collaborative spirit of twenty-first-century learning. Then they come to school and they’re sitting there like zombies and listening to one person talk to them. Then all that goes away when they go home and become collaborative, community-driven, creative thinkers all over again. We need to bring that thinking process into the schools; they’re still entrenched in passive learning.”

Luhtala’s main ally in the school, Cathy Swan, has pushed for technology integration in all the humanities classes. A few years ago, the smart computer nerds had to monkey around with the school computers to get into the cool sites. But Swan encourages the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and, especially, YouTube.

Indeed, if you go to YouTube and type in New Canaan High, you’ll get more than 700 videos. One might be scenes from a play that the kids in Spanish class recorded and put up. Another might be Michelle Luhtala explaining how to sign up for VoiceThread—an online networking site where students can talk about the books they’re reading.

Some New Canaan students are writing fiction on Wiki’s Novella site, which, like all Wiki sites, is open for anyone else in the world to edit. Thus a student’s story about a Latin American revolution will get a little fix from someone in Argentina who noticed a problem.

The Web is a huge place, and Swan wants the doors opened so kids can use it. Sure, there are punks out there, but even they can be exposed. “Some kids get very, very upset by the nastiness that goes around. But we feel that if we can demystify it and teach kids all about the privacy settings that they’re not even thinking about, the kids will learn. And they’ll be happy to learn.”