A few of the featured stories really upset me. One was the story of a 13 year-old who committed suicide after being cyber-bullied and discussing methods of suicide with an online friend. One thing that stunned me was an online survey he took "for fun" that gave a personality assessment and then provided your ideal way of killing yourself.
The other story that bothered me very deeply was the anorexic girl who felt she could only be her real self on the Internet. Her parents and real life friends had no idea that she was suffering from an eating disorder. She used the Internet for connecting with other "anas" (their cool term for girls with eating disorders) and for information on bingeing, purging and starving.
Suicide and eating disorders have always been a disturbing part of adolescence, even since the pre-Internet days of my own adolescence. What is so much worse is that the Internet makes these behaviors seem normal by allowing connection with others who are experiencing or exploring the same behavior.
So, what are we, as teachers, parents and other caring adults, to do?
One thing I have done is to start a Teen Angels chapter at our school. Teen Angels is a program started by Parry Aftab of Wired Safety. We are in the process of completing the training, which is quite extensive and includes research projects and visits from local law enforcement. In February, our Teen Angels will be giving presentations to younger students at our school and to parents at an evening PTA meeting. I like Teen Angels because I think that students are more likely to pay attention to a peer than to an adult when it comes to something like online safety.
Our school does use a filter for the Internet. I know this is one of the great debates of the edu-blogosphere, a subject for another post, but I will say that I am not against filters in schools. I just think that they fail to really address the problem. I like what Parry Aftab says, that we need to teach kids to use the filter between their ears. Truly, the Internet gives rise to the need for a whole new skill-set in this realm.