Sitting at a table in the computer lab at the Prospect Sierra Middle School in El Cerrito, Calif., munching a sandwich from a brown-bag lunch, Emily, a seventh-grader, is filling me in on Neopets, a site where she goes to create virtual pets and mingle with other pet owners in the fictional land of Neotopia. Her classmate Mariko, who has a Web site of her own, seems unimpressed. "It's basically a walking advertisement," she offers wryly. The rest of the students at the table share their Internet horror stories. "I went to a chat room just to check it out, and now I get thirty pieces of junk mail a day," says Matt, a sixth-grader who spends about half an hour online daily. Alyse, an eighth-grader with eight Instant Messenger screen names, puts it differently: "I hate the Internet. It's a mess," she says, recounting how she unintentionally found herself at a neo-Nazi site while trying to gather information on the Holocaust. All the kids at the table agreed that chain letters and Internet hoaxes are "creepy."
Welcome to the world of teens online, a digital generation that's comfortable tossing around terms like spam and broadband, casually visiting chat rooms (although most dismiss them as stupid), or disabling a cookie that the latest digital music site has surreptitiously placed on their hard drive. This level of tech sophistication is not just a phenomenon among upper-middle-class kids like those I talked to at Prospect Sierra. A growing number of reports such as the Pew Internet & American Life Project and UCLA's "Surveying the Digital Future"(see Research Report, next page), as well as a broad sampling of preteens and teens I spoke with, support this conclusion. The Internet has become their place--to try on new identities, to gather information for play and school, to gossip with friends. And while traditional activities such as sports, TV, and "hanging around" show no signs of disappearing, the Internet as a presence in their lives still represents a titanic change from all that's gone before.
The new opportunities for knowledge and communication offered by the Internet are undeniably exciting, but with them come a raft of concerns for adults. On the one hand, kids are discovering new avenues for finding information, for socializing, for experimenting with different personas, and for gaining important technology skills they'll need for their futures. At the same time, we've all heard the stories of inappropriate and sometimes even dangerous experiences the Net potentially opens up for children: pornography, hacking, copyright infringement, and online bullying, to name a few.
Regardless, as the Internet, with all of its possibilities and contradictions, increasingly becomes a regular part of preteens' and teens' daily routines and communication patterns, it seems naive and shortsighted for educators to separate this technology from the way students learn and teachers teach. The challenge lies in how to strike a balance between ensuring students' safe and responsible behavior, and allowing them the freedom to explore new places and learn in creative, innovative ways.
Clicking with Kids
Before considering how schools can address the relevant Internet issues, it's important to look at the facts. What are students doing online, and how have their behaviors evolved over time? What role are parents and schools playing? The kids I spoke with gave me answers that corroborated much of what the research is saying about where they're going on the Net and why. Among the themes that emerged are the following.
The majority of kids are wired. It's not really news that millions of kids have access to the Internet today. Thanks to federal funding initiatives like the E-rate, almost all public schools are wired. (The Department of Education reports 98 percent; education research firm Market Data Retrieval says 92 percent.) The 2000 Census found that two-thirds of homes with a child aged 6 to 17 have a computer, with 53 percent of these homes connecting to the Internet. …