Chat Rooms and Adolescent Communication: Where Do Schools Fit in? (Making IT Work for Learning)

Article excerpt

Despite what politicians and the media would have us believe, the ability to access porn on the computer is a relatively minor threat to our children's safety when compared to other things that are out there. For some reason, perhaps our nation's Puritan roots, we tend to be more concerned with our children's exposure to topics such as sex and nudity than we are with regard to topics of real danger such as violence or drug abuse. This is perhaps most clear when we look at the criteria for rating movies, but it holds true in the politics of instructional technology as well. Discussions of "Internet safety" and protecting our children from the "dark side of the Net" invariably center on pornography, with other topics such as hate speech, drugs, and gambling taking a back seat to the main goal of keeping kids from seeing pictures of naked people.

While distasteful and inappropriate, these pictures in themselves do not cause physical harm, and it's important that we not allow them to divert our attention from issues of real physical danger. A more immediate concern is the exposure of children to people who would do them harm in chat rooms. It is here that a real threat of danger exists. Many recent abductions of teens and pre-teens have been traced back to an initial contact with their abductors in a chat room.

Of course, millions of people engage in chat every day and have great experiences. I know several people who have had positive relationships that started in chat rooms, and one friend of mine is married to someone he met in a chat room. My concern involves the way that chat changes social discourse, and the way that it influences people, especially adolescents, to behave in unsafe ways. In this column, I would like to explore ways that we as educators can address this change in behavior, helping students to examine their actions and evaluate the safety of their environment while in a chat room.

A couple of weeks ago, I signed up for a screen name on Yahoo! and logged into their chat server. I entered one of the teen chat areas to see what kind of topics young people might be occupying themselves with. Perhaps they would be debating the need to lift patents on AIDS medications so they could be provided inexpensively to poor African countries. Maybe they would be arguing about what America's role in the Middle East should be. They might even be talking about human rights in Sierra Leone.

I Was Underwhelmed

I can't think of a more appropriate name for this technology than "chat." These are not discourse rooms, or argument rooms, or discussion rooms. Chat is a perfect description of what happens there. Adolescent banter pretty much sums it up--not much different from what you might hear as you walk through any suburban shopping mall: "You suck."

In between arguments about who rules--Metallica or the Chili Peppers--was an endless stream of request for the age/sex/location of other people in the mom. In addition, many of the participants invited each other into private areas to continue more personal conversations once they found someone with the age/sex/location they were looking for. One 16/M/NJ was looking for a "young hottie with a Web cam who wants to chat." I really don't even want to speculate on that one.

While most of this seemed pretty harmless, it occurred to me that this technology has changed not only the way kids communicate, but the way that they interact with each other in general. While some of the language sounded like a group of kids at the mall, the fundamental structure of the interaction was different. With distance comes security and self-confidence. The shy boy who approaches the cute girl and her friends and stutters out an awkward introduction no longer has any reason to be shy. "Hi, I think you're hot. Wanna go someplace private and talk?" This distance alleviates the obvious concern for physical safety that a girl has when meeting a stranger, and more often than not she will agree to continue the conversation in private. …