MySpace and the end of civilization

MySpace is just the most obvious symptom of a much larger problem.

It seems as though every other blog entry on this site (and many others) is about the evils of MySpace. The middle school in our district recently hosted an Internet Safety Night which largely focused on MySpace. I've already even written a piece on MySpace (Is MySpace Really as Bad as it Seems?). However, after reading the last few postings, I'm feeling the need to weigh in again. Here's my $.02 and, as always, I'd welcome some feedback as we continue to define our Internet use policies here in little ol' Athol, Mass.

I think most of us will agree that MySpace hosts its share of questionable content. Sure, they delete downright pornography, but all too many of the postings don't leave much to the imagination. I don't let my own kids use MySpace and I block it at my school. I've even implemented a block through our content filter on the word "proxy" since most of the kids have discovered that they can connect to MySpace via a proxy server.

However, MySpace is just the most obvious symptom of a much larger problem. There are countless other MySpace clone sites, many of which are even less effective at removing offensive content. Anyone can create a free blog and attach pictures, start discussions, and interact with others anonymously (if asynchronously). It actually requires a much lower degree of sophistication than in years past to create one's own website. My 10 year old built a website for free using spiffy built-in CGIs and nice WYSIWYG editor on one of many free website hosts. Of course, it was about chickens, but it was a fully functional website. When a real website with absolutely no content restrictions can be had for $2-3 a month, I have high school students posting professional-level web pages with all manner of mature, offensive, and downright dangerous material.

Low-cost web hosts will often provide built-in functionality to create forums, chat rooms, etc., and students' personal sites often have many of the same features that enable rapid and easy communication on MySpace. More troubling from a systems administration point of view is that these sites are generally obscure enough to fly under the radar of content filters on our firewalls. Often, the only way we know that they exist is by the huddle of students pointing and laughing around a computer.

Last year, one particular site garnered considerable attention, first from students, then from the local paper, and, finally, from teachers and administration. This site was devoted to the Jackass-style antics of five students, all trying to one-up the stunts posted on competing sites from around the country. Stunts posted in high definition video included students sliding naked down a local elementary school slide, tug-of-war with fish-hooks and fishing line hooked through two students foreheads, and grinding skateboards off other students' shins. None of this made it to MySpace. It was all hosted on a regular pay website developed using Flash and sophisticated javascripting, exclusively by students.

The backlash in this particular case was considerable, though for the school, and not for the students involved. When our local paper reported on the site and stunts involved, it incorrectly noted that the students (referred to as our school's best and brightest) had used school equipment to create the site (I had to laugh - our budget is such that we can't afford the equipment required to film, edit, and post digital video). Although inaccurate, the damage to public perception had already been done.

The point of all of this is that MySpace is not the problem. We need to recognize the rapidly growing number of ways in which kids are able to be offensive, dangerous, inappropriate, and endanger themselves. We as educators need to address this head on, not by condemning the sites, but by intensive, technology-focused education that allows students who know just enough to be dangerous to be a little safer online (and off). In so doing, we protect ourselves, as well as the kids.

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