Talking to Strangers Online
Talking to Strangers Online In recent years, the Internet has proved itself to be a niche of ever-growing clientele, offering its users a multitude of venues of entertainment, education and other beneficial uses; but other venues of mischief it provides as well. It has been a matter of public discord and a concern of parents and educationalists that millions of teen patrons are now ‘online. ‘ A lot of them use the internet regularly, interacting with all sorts of content and technologies, and yet it is safe to say that the technologies that attract teens the most are those of online communication.
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These appear in many forms and have many uses, yet they can also pose multiple threats. Harassment, online bullying and anonymous immoral solicitations to millions of youth online now have new headquarters, going by the name of Social Networking Sites (SNSs). One needs to have a general understanding of how people can use online communication technologies to target youth. A “chat room” is an online place where people gather to “chat” in real time. Real time” is a technical term which means that, in computers, information is processed instantly; thus messages written in a chat room conversation are instantly viewed by all members. Most chat rooms are open to anyone who intends to participate, but discussions are not; they are often centered on certain subjects, such as relationships and depression. Although messages in a given chat room are viewed by all the participants within, chatters interested in having more private conversations can easily pair off for private talk.
Many sites allow users to post and send others photographs and personal information and even use web-cameras. It is notable, however, that chat rooms, being a first among places online where solicitations and harassments occur, are losing popularity among teens. Wolak, Finkelhor and Mitchell noted in their article that many youth thought of chat rooms as unpleasant places attracting an ‘unsavory’ crowd (e351). This is true as, in nowadays’ world of technology and the plethora of communication modicums, chat rooms have become an obsolete means of communication whose use youth have relinquished to the abuse of other parties.
Another real-time communication tool is Instant Messaging (IM), which is a more popular variation of chat rooms that allows two or more people using the same IM service to communicate instantaneously. Its similarity to chat rooms is the fact that message senders’ typing appears simultaneously on the computer screens of both senders and receivers. IM messages are sent solely through screen names, which means that in order to send another user a message, one has to actually know them personally to obtain their private screen names. This minimalizes interaction with strangers compared to the openness of chat rooms.
Some IM services have searchable member directories to help users identify or contact acquaintances, but receiving messages from unknown people through searches can be easily prevented by changing account privacy settings. “Although more teenagers use e-mail,” claim Ybarra and Mitchell, “IMing is the Internet tool most often used to communicate with friends. ” It is true that teenagers, having left chat rooms behind, have turned to the comparatively safer sanction of Instant Messaging with its higher level of security and freedom of personalization. Blogs” (a contraction of web-logs) are online journals that people use as diaries or to comment on specific topics. They are types of websites, usually maintained by a blogger with regular entries of commentary, detailed descriptions of events or even media content. Some are personal in nature, acting as glorified online diaries with entries revolving around blogger’s personal feelings and experiences, while some just provide commentary or news on a particular subject. Many blogs contain contact information and most allow readers or visitors to post responses and leave comments of their own.
The most important feature of blogs is that they allow for interactive contact from known and unknown people; anyone who stumbles upon a blog online may interact with its author (Ybarra and Mitchell). Social networking sites are an emerging phenomenon of intriguing affordance and reach that integrate all of the communication tools above. They are web-based services that allow individuals to do many things; according to Boyd and Ellison they “allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other sers with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. ” This means that SNSs allow their users to create their own electronic space, their own page that acts as their business card online for everyone to see. Social networking sites have implemented a variety of technical features; yet the common feature between them is the profile.
They are unique pages where one can type oneself into being, generated automatically in accordance to the user’s stated preferences and demographic information. They also allow users to invite others and request their friendship on those sites, as a formality just to acknowledge and confirm their ties electronically on the web, and to build lists of those friends and acquaintances. Users are then allowed to view and sift through those lists and lists of their friends’, thus increasing the chance of them stumbling upon a forgotten user or a friend.
Upon joining a social networking service, users are asked to answer a series of questions typically including age, location, ethnicity, religion, orientation and interests. They are also advised to fill in an ‘about me’ section to aid other users in getting to know them (Boyd and Ellison). Profile visibility differs from one site to another and according to user’s security or discretion preferences. Some sites allow user profiles to be found by search engines while other sites do not allow their own users to look up other users without having some sort of connection to them.
Most sites encourage users to enhance their profiles by adding modules and multimedia content or modifying the profile’s look; they can change backgrounds and various other things that, according to Boyd’s article, “turn their profiles into an explosion of animated chaos that resembles a stereotypical teenagers’ bedroom” (6). The public display of connections is a crucial component of social networking sites. Friends lists contain links to each friend’s profile, enabling anyone permitted to view the profile to traverse the network by surfing from one friend to another.
This means that, in some cases, users can view other users’ profiles simply because they share a mutual contact; maybe a mere acquaintance even, allowing for easier invasion of privacy. Displaying these lists on users’ profiles provides meaningful information about them; people on social networking sites tend to judge others based on their groups and associations. Friends list act, for better or for worse, as the ultimate cue in helping users find their place among similar peers.
Most social networking sites provide users with a mechanism for leaving messages on their friends’ profiles; either public or private. The public mechanism is that of comments, on the digital space FaceBook has dubbed “the Wall”, or, as they were called some time ago, testimonials. Previously reserved for writing testimonials (hence the name) about other users, users were encouraged to write creative and witty testimonials back and forth, creating some sort of conversation. Though it is public, the ‘Wall’ has evolved to a space hosting comments, not about the user, but to the user.
The private mechanism is simply an internal messaging system for the system’s users, much like private e-mails, and is not public. Many teenagers who use social networking sites eagerly use several tools and techniques to manage their profiles. Teens post various things on their profiles, yet a first name and a photo seem to be shared by almost everyone. Very few online youth – approximately 5%, according to Lenhart and Madden- disclose full names, photos and personal information that can be used to physically locate them in profiles that can be viewed publically.
Some teens post photos and other media of themselves and their friends, such as links, videos or recordings (iii-iv). Teens think about their privacy and disclosure differently from one another. The majority of teens who have profiles online have reported that they limited access to their profiles in some way, seeing as 66% “restrict access to their profiles” in various ways, reveal Lenhart and Madden, “including making them private, password protecting them, hiding them completely from others or even taking them offline” (26).
Older teens share more personal information than younger teens, apparently thinking they are less prone to random identification and harassments and more capable of dealing with them. Girls and boys have different views about personal information given online; while girls are more likely to post photos of themselves and their friends on their profiles, boys are more likely to post their whereabouts, their last names and cellular phone numbers when compared to girls. It appears that girls are more attentive than boys to how much information they post concerning their physical locations.
Boys and younger teens are much more likely to post false information than girls and younger teens, and some teens actually create alter-egos, pseudonyms or profiles with completely false identities in these online communities. Patrons of online social networking sites have different participation strategies and reasons for joining them; adults have different interests from those of youth. While adults find value in socializing with strangers, as was intended by SNSs’ earlier counterparts, teenagers are more focused on socializing with friends and people they already know offline.
Celebrities and music seem to be the main common factors between teens and adults, as suggested by Boyd in her paper; users want to be friends of celebrities they adore, while music attracts hordes of fans wanting to keep track of concert times and free tickets or to show their appreciation and loyalty to certain musicians or bands (5). This is a crucial point in impression management and youth’s need to appear ‘cool’. Parents’ authority over teens is one reason why they are flocking to social networking sites. They are structuring teens’ lives more and more by the day, transforming free time to an urban legend in an average teen’s life.
Several barriers oppose teen social life; mobility, parental restrictions on access to public life, compulsory education and segregation from adult life. In absence of other venues of entertainment, teens turn to such sites for entertainment; social voyeurism, which is practiced avidly by older teenage girls especially, helps pass time while providing an insight into society (Boyd, 10). Social voyeurs spend a lot of their time ‘lurking’ through profiles of their friends and friends of their friends, amusing themselves by monitoring the comments passed back and forth by others as well as news about others that have potential for juicy gossip.
Some find it fascinating to have such insight into their friends’ everyday life and emotional states just by reading their status. Sharing ‘cool’ applications and modules with friends, posting witty remarks and sharing games and other peer-approved media content are also other interesting pastimes for online teens. Youth face several risks online, especially while using different methods of online communication, and most importantly social networking sites. Sometimes teens engage in risky behaviors that contribute to the increase in unwanted experiences.
Posting personal information and pictures online, or sending them to someone they met only online is one behavior. Another is engaging in inappropriate online behavior such as visiting X-rated websites, using suggestive screen names, or partaking in personal or immoral conversations with people they discover online (Wolak, Finkelhore and Mitchell, report, 50-51). Needless to say, using rude or inappropriate language online, which can be publically viewed, or using the internet to harass, annoy or embarrass someone are ways of attracting unwanted exposures or harassment by strangers.
One risk is that of wanton approaches by other users. According to statistics from The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “unwanted sexual solicitations or approaches happened to approximately 1 in 7 youth Internet users” (Wolak, Finkelhore and Mitchell, report, 23). The media has always given the public a disturbing stereotype of the typical victims of solicitations, making them out to be innocent children and younger adolescents while in truth mainly teens are targeted online – thirteen and older.
Solicitors are not all aggressive or deceitful; in fact most do not hide the fact that they are adults, nor do they conceal their intentions, they just appeal to victims’ want for romance or promising them to help them escape from their homes in search for adventure. Wolak, Finkelhore and Mitchell demonstrated that in their article on Internet-initiated sex crimes: Although most of the offenders were much older than their victims, deception about these large age differences was a rare feature of these crimes … Deception about sexual motives was also uncommon … most of these deceivers were open about wanting sex from their victims …
Nonetheless, most offenders openly sexually solicited victims … Altogether, 52% lied about something at some point in the relationship, but deceptions about being considerably older adults interested in sexual relationships with teenagers did not occur in most of these crimes (5-6). Moreover, solicitors may be genuine predators, voyeurs looking for gratification or just misguided persons seeking to harass and insult others. A disturbing new trend has been unearthed as it turns out a considerable number of solicitors ask youth to send them inappropriate pictures of themselves.
It is hard to establish whether they are sexual predators who are using photographs to undermine potential victims’ inhibitions, for their own twisted gratification, for child-pornography purposes, or to ascertain whether targeted victims were undercover Internet Crimes Squad agents (Wolak, Finkelhore and Mitchell, article, 23). Since its inception, researchers have noted that the Internet has attracted an audience of voyeurs and solicitors who may not wish for physical interaction with victims but who will be satisfied merely by seeing nudity or viewing acts of physical nature.
Another risk is that of unwanted exposure to material of unchaste nature, which mostly passes unreported. Most unwanted exposures occur to teenagers because their Interests online draw them closer to websites hosting less than innocent material. “Teen interests in celebrities, music, romance, and sports,” point out Wolak, Finkelhore and Mitchell in their article, “may put them in greater proximity to web sites that purveyors of sexual material target for marketing their wares” (34). The majority of teens do not even consider reporting such unwelcome exposures; they consider them a natural and unavoidable part of the web experience.
Even when some of these exposures are reported to an adult or a parent, internet service providers and authorities are rarely, if ever, notified of the incident. Teens actually blame themselves for such exposures, which usually result from misspelled words or broad search terms. Harassment seems to occur the least out of the aforementioned risks. Harassment is, surprisingly enough, the most distressing thing that happens to teens online; more teens disclose them to parents than unwanted solicitations or exposures.
More teens are distressed by online harassments and bullying than they are normally affected by unwanted solicitations and exposures, especially if friends or schoolmates are involved. Even though every other online communication technology has its share of harassment incidents, social networking sites, having combined almost all of their features, have magnified the opportunities and threats of harassment and bullying among peers. This, Boyd shows, is explained by certain properties SNSs, being mediated publics, have – searchability, persistence, replicability and invisible audiences (9).
Those four properties mean that things said and exchanged over SNSs are long-lasting, or saved, and record of them cannot be altered or erased easily; they are searchable and thus locating someone’s digital body online is no mean feat; they can be copied and are indistinguishable from the original. Furthermore, it is impossible to know who stumbled on one’s expression or interaction with other friends, and there is no way to know what they thought of it or whether info was misinterpreted or not, thus anyone can build false impressions from afar without even interacting with the person in question (Boyd, 9).
In brief, profiles provide bullies with an ‘electronic bathroom wall’ that allows them to share insults and innuendos and have a lot more witnesses to their harassing activities. With the increasing amount of minor teens going online, more families are attempting to limit their children’s access to objectionable content. Lenhart reports that 87% of teens between the ages of twelve and seventeen use the Internet (2) – the majority of them have internet access at home. The rest of them have access at places like schools, friends’ homes, community centers and cyber cafes.
More parents are now heeding advice from safety advocates. Parents now tend to place computers in a public place within the home, peeking occasionally at the screen to discern what activities their children may be engaging in. More and more parents are setting rules about their children’s activities online and the time they spend. Nowadays, more households have rules about Internet use than other media. Parents are more likely to restrict the type of content their children view online and the amount of time they spend on the Internet compared to other media like television and video gaming (vi).
For that reason, parents are checking the history function for sites youth have visited, as well as going through their files. Moreover, more households now employ filters and blocking software to exercise some control over the content their children view as well as keep an eye on their activities. Social networking sites hold great interest to teens all over the world. Adolescence is a period of curiosity, exploring different aspects of life and developing social skills by communicating with others while trying to find one’s self in the mix. Yet this period of exploration and character development comes at a heavy price.
Innumerable risks arise daily and parents, teens and law enforcement agencies should be fully prepared to face down these risks. Teens have several encounters with potentially harmful material every day, encounters that are fraught with danger and risks. Parents must try to intrude themselves on their children’s online lives, endeavor to have a heavier correctional influence on them. Let parents provide their offspring with the necessary guidance they desperately need so they could know how to live those lives safely and yet have some room for their exploration.
Yet such intrusions, essential as they are, should never encroach on familial bonds needlessly; in fact they may help in establishing a closer bond of mutual trust between parent and child. No matter how fun and beneficial the Internet can get, it is crucial that teens do not let their guards down when they are online, and their parents should be there to make sure of that. Works Cited Boyd, Danah M. “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life. ” MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning – Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. Ed.
David Buckingham. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007 <http://www. danah. org/papers/WhyYouthHeart. pdf>. Boyd, Danah M. , and Nicole Ellison. “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. ” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 13. 1 (June 2007) <http://jcmc. indiana. edu/vol13/issue1/boyd. ellison. html>. Lenhart, Amanda. “Protecting Teens Online: More Than Half of the American Families with Teenagers Use Filters to Limit Access to Potentially Harmful Content Online. But Both Teens and Parents Do Things on the Internet that their Parents Would Not Approve of. Pew Internet & American Life Project. 17 Mar. 2005 <http://www. pewinternet. org/~/media//Files/Reports/2005/ PIP_Filters_Report. pdf >. Lenhart, Amanda, and Marry Madden. “Teens, Privacy & Online Social Networks: How teens manage their online identities and personal information in the age of MySpace. ” Pew Internet & American Life Project. 18 Apr. 2007 <http://www. pewinternet. org/pdfs/ PIP_Teens_Privacy_SNS_Report_Final. pdf >. Wolak, Janis, David Finkelhor, and Kimberly Mitchell. Internet-initiated Sex Crimes against Minors: Implications for Prevention Based on Findings from a National Study. ” Journal of Adolescent Health. 35:424. e11– 424. e20. Elsevier Inc. , Nov. 2004. —. “Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later. ” Report. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 2006. Ybarra, Michele L. , and Kimberly Mitchell. “How Risky Are Social Networking Sites? A Comparison of Places Online Where Youth Sexual Solicitations and Harassment Occurs. ” Pediatrics. Illinois: American Academy of Pediatrics, 28 Jan. 2008