INTERNET: by Gabrielle WalshNews Weekly
Risks in personal Web pages
, July 7, 2007
Teenagers risk wrecking their future relationships and employment prospects by posting personal, intimate details on their web-logs.
In this article - the second in News Weekly
's series on teenagers at risk from the internet - Gabrielle Walsh
, national secretary of the Australian Family Association, looks at the serious risks brewing for many millions of young people.Late-night television carries an advertisement for downloading "that Paris Hilton video" onto your mobile phone. Apparently, "that video" was made by Miss Hilton and shows herself in a sexual romp with an ex-boyfriend.
When singer Britney Spears flashed her waxed backside to waiting photographers as she exited her limo, it gave her instant publicity across the world's media.
Many now identify Paris Hilton and Britney Spears by their self-staged exhibitionism. The exhibitionism of some celebrities contrasts with the cautious approach to the media exercised by others such as members of Irish rock band, U2.Private lives
U2 appreciate the importance of publicity to their music career, but have kept their private lives just that, "private". When they cancelled one performance on their Australian tour because of an illness in a band member's family, even the most prying investigative journalists could not find out which relative of which band member was ill. For them, what happens in the family stays in the family.
In a similar vein, an older generation will remember Susan Sontag, the novelist and left-wing anti-Vietnam war activist. She had a degree in philosophy, literature and theology from Harvard and the Sorbonne. In her later years she spent time in besieged Sarajevo during the genocidal Balkans war.
Following her death in 2004, Sontag was accused of cowardice and hypocrisy for refusing to out herself over her lesbian relationship with photographer, Annie Leibovitz. Commenting on this private aspect of Sontag's life, Kay Hymowitz astutely observed why celebrities have the right and the need to protect themselves from the relentless and unforgiving public eye.
Hymowitz noted that Sontag, a woman who braved the brutes of Kosovo, "was probably less fearful of having it known that she was in love with a woman than of having it become the defining trait of her public identity; she must have dreaded being boxed in as the 'lesbian writer Susan Sontag'.
"Note that Sontag never shied from advancing a public persona on her own terms. On the contrary, that famous shock of white hair brashly announced that she was a woman with a talent for self-dramatisation. But as an authority on the camera as well as on Western literature, she knew that the public gaze was always inclined to trivialise the complexities of identity." (The Wall Street Journal,
January 12, 2007).
U2 and Susan Sontag have more in common than their involvement in the Kosovo conflict - U2 performed the touching Miss Sarajevo
with tenor Luciano Paravotti and was the first major group to tour the country after the war. They both understood that a person's identity and reputation are very fragile; and that "to throw your intimate self before the public is to risk having your identity mauled by a mob of hyenas, and you will probably suffer for it", as Hymowitz observes.
Until the internet became ubiquitous, only celebrities had to deal with these problems. Now, many millions of young people worldwide are putting their identities and reputations on the line with future employers, family, spouses and friends, thanks to personal web pages on social-networking web-sites.
On these sites, people can set up personal web-pages devoted to themselves, their friends, families, hobbies and fantasies, using photos, graphics, comments, sound and video.
Each site can be networked to other personalised sites. One site can be linked to dozens, even hundreds, of other sites. In this way young people can introduce themselves, make connections with friends (or strangers), add comments to each other's sites, host and swap photos, videos, music, etc. The personal details of one person can then be copied, modified, edited and spread across dozens or hundreds of other sites.Mini-celebrity status
For teens, their personal on-line web page gives them mini-celebrity status. Yet the intimacy of many sites sees young people using these the way they once would have used personal diaries. For many, it becomes a daily routine to go onto their web page, network with others, surf from one personal page to another, adding and swapping comments, images and sound.
The explosive growth of personal web pages is illustrated by MySpace
, the largest provider of social networking sites. It receives about 80 per cent of the daily visits to all US social networking sites. In 2004 it had half-a-million accounts; as of last September, it had 106 million accounts, growing at an astounding 230,000 new accounts per day. From advertising alone, MySpace
is making about $US30 million per month, with revenue expected to double this year.
In April last year, MySpace
purged 200,000 of the most objectionable pages from its server, but that was less than the number of new pages being listed in one day. At that time, it had a staggering 1.5 billion page-views per day!
Personal web pages on sites like MySpace
have created something never seen before - a vast database of personal information available to anyone, anywhere, for any purpose.
It is already standard practice for employers, universities and colleges to scan the web to profile applicants. They are finding "digital dirt" that is ending the education opportunities and careers of thousands of young people before their careers even get started.
However, on the horizon loom much wider social problems.Exploitation
Millions of young people have made themselves mini-celebrities on their own personal web pages, imitating the glossy magazines and leaving themselves open to the sort of personal scrutiny and comment once faced only by celebrities. Just as many magazines thrive on exposing the personal scandals of celebrities, so too can the web.
Undoubtedly, it will soon become standard practice for those contemplating marriage to search the web to check out the personal, intimate details of their future spouse's teenage years. What they find may shock them. What they find may be true or something edited and modified or even faked, then spread across numerous web pages and blog sites with no chance of being erased.
And if the potential fiancée doesn't check out their future spouse on the web, be sure the future mother-in-law will.
A danger for tweenies and teens is that they become easy prey for sexual predators. Incredibly, many provide their mobile phone and home phone numbers, address, school and even their school timetable on their web page. There have been numerous reports of sexual assaults, rapes and some murders from connections being made between young people and paedophiles.
Then there is the wider problem of cyber-bullying. This has been made easy by personal web pages and blogs. Because materials can be copied from web pages, it is then easy to modify and comment on another individuals in order to slur, deride and bully them.Identity theft
A rapidly growing problem is the identity-theft of young people.
People only have to put basic details on the web - their name, town, age, and most put up their photo - and the stage has been set for their identity to be stolen. From these few details, a visit to WhitePages.com.au
can provide an address and telephone numbers.
Often, a name, address and telephone number are enough to obtain from a web provider the password to a secured personal web page or, if provided to an internet service provider, a person's internet account and their personal email. Security is a huge problem on the internet.
Identity thieves are attracted to young people because they have clean credit records. The fact that they are young makes them ideal targets for credit theft because the theft can go undetected for years. When young people later apply for a job, credit card or bank account, they may find that they have a sordid credit record. How do they prove their innocence?
The nature of how people interact on the new medium of the internet is very different from how people interact in normal social situations. More than half of normal face-to-face communications between people are non-verbal, interpreting the other's body language.
The web, however, is a mediated environment where you can't see the other person and read his or her body language. Consequently, communications on blogs and between personal web-pages can prove very deceptive. Web communications require that people learn to withhold their trust of others, even of people they know.
In an interview in WireTAPmag.com,
Kate Sheppard says that there are four aspects of the web that demand people be cautious in their use of this new technology. Sheppard describes the differences between this new medium and how people communicate in person:
- what you say sticks around.
- my mother would have loved the ability to sort of magically scream into the ether to figure out where I was when I'd gone off to hang out with my friends. She couldn't, thank God. But today when kids are hanging out online because they've written [themselves] into being online, they become very searchable.
- you have a conversation with your friends, and this can be copied and pasted into your Live Journal and you get into a tiff. That creates an amazing amount of 'uh-ohs' when you add it to persistence.
"And finally, invisible audiences
. In an unmediated environment, you can look around and have an understanding of who can possibly overhear you. You adjust what you're saying to the reactions of those people. You figure out what is appropriate to say; you understand the social context.
"But when we're dealing with mediated environments [like the internet], we have no way of gauging who might hear or see us, not only because we can't tell whose presence is lurking at the moment, but because of persistence and searchability."
(For a very good discussion on these points, Google "Five Digital/Dirt Differences").
Sheppard sounds a serious word of caution to young people. The web is not like a personal private diary, or a network of close friends you know in real life. It is more like a huge international newspaper that can be read by anyone anywhere around the globe. It should be treated with the same care a journalist exercises in preparing what he/she writes and portrays in a newspaper.
The problem is that teenagers don't foresee that what was cute and funny now can leave them scarred for life when they are 20-something, searching for a career job and a life-long partner, or trying to get a credit card, or just making friends.
In trying to work through their identities, they risk trivialising and destroying their identities. They are setting themselves up to have their personalities boxed in to some event(s) - real, exaggerated or totally fictitious - because of what was posted on the web years earlier.
Ideally, young people should be educated to realise that their own personal web pages are not advancing their personalities on their own terms, but on the anonymous, deceptive and sometimes destructive terms on which the internet operates.
However, coming to grips with these issues demands maturity and a hard-nosed approach to life. That is much harder to achieve at that age than taking recommended security measures like fire-walling one's computer, installing automatically updateable anti-viral software, filtering software and anti-spy ware - which most teens (and parents) don't grasp either.
Young people don't easily see the difference between a U2 or a Susan Sontag embracing fame and the media but on their own terms, as opposed to a Britney Spears or Paris Hilton who embraces the media on the media's terms.
The internet is capable of putting under the microscope any aspect of human existence, on any person or thing. Science has created a powerful, intrusive, indiscriminate all-seeing eye that operates in the context of a moral dark age.
With our moral sensitivities already at a low ebb, there is no moral or legal framework to protect children, teens and other vulnerable groups; and libertarians are adamant that it remains that way.
The Y-generation are not to blame. They have been left to fend for themselves, while their parents' generation are struggling to understand this new phenomenon.
Is it likely that the Y-generation will wake up and go cold turkey, going off-line to protect their reputations and identities? It doesn't seem likely at the moment.
Instead, one senses that out there is brewing a social disaster of major proportions for many millions of young people.- Gabrielle Walsh.
Can safety tips for your teenager work?
The following is a summary of the elaborate array of safety tips recommended to young people by WiredSafety.org
, which provides internet piracy and security law advice to personal web-page providers, and the US Federal Trade Commission:*
• Never divulge any personal information, including your real name, address, telephone number, mobile number, your workplace, health club, or links to websites or other profiles that might give this information away. … Your password can often be guessed, your identity can be stolen.
• Consider not
posting your photo. It can be altered and broadcast in ways you may not be happy about. If you do post one, ask yourself whether it's one your mother would display in the living-room.
• Remember that your online friends are not really your friends. … You don't know if that cute 20-year-old guy is cute, 20 or even a guy.
• Post only information that you are comfortable with others seeing - and knowing - about you. Many people can see your page, including your parents, your teachers, the police, the college you might want to apply to next year, or the job you might want to apply for in five years.
• Remember that once you post information online, you can't take it back. Even if you delete the information from a site, older versions exist on other people's computers. They are passed around and discoverable by search engines. You are never truly private when online.
• Protect your computer. Make sure you have a good firewall and an automatically updated anti-virus program installed on your computer. While you're at it, get good spyware or adware blocker too.
From these recommendations, one is left to draw several conclusions.
Most people don't come within a mile of applying these and the many other safeguards being recommended for personal web-pages. Many are beyond their technical capabilities or the maturity of teenagers to understand.
If caution demands that you don't post your real name, age, personal photo, let alone other personal details, then:
• the risks must be real and very difficult for young people to avoid; and
• implementing such security measures defeats the very purpose of having a personal web-page in the first place - networking and being an internet mini-celebrity.
* See www.bebo.com/SafetyTips.jsp