Island guidance counselors wrestle with changing technology
The Edgartown School posted a list of links on its website last fall, connecting parents with sources of information on Internet safety issues involving their children.
For Mary Ellen MacElroy, guidance counselor and health teacher at the Tisbury School, the use of chat programs like AOL Internet Messenger by Island children has been a concern for years. But the involvement of children with sites like Myspace has only recently appeared on her professional radar.
"This just came up at our school about 10 days ago," she said in a March 4 interview, "when one of the dads came to us and asked, what do you know about this? To be honest, I hadn't been aware of anything happening with Myspace at our school. I just knew about it from news stories - horrible news stories."
That's when she contacted her counterparts, Eric Butler in Edgartown and Jean Holenko at the Oak Bluffs School.
The father who first contacted her, Ms. MacElroy said, discovered his daughter was using Myspace after an Oak Bluffs police officer saw her picture on the site, and told him about it. "So this father started exploring the site," she said, "and he found another seventh-grader at our school who had logged on as a 21-year-old, or whatever - but because they're so young, they don't have their whole story thought through, and somewhere in this blog about herself, she mentioned being just 13." (Myspace tries to keep children under 14 off its site, but there's no simple way to enforce this rule.)
Technology has changed the whole social dynamic of life for Island teens, Ms. MacElroy said. "Our kids on the Island have become so much more connected - often in not a good way, because there's a lot of bullying that goes on. But with all this IM-ing, they all have these friends from the other schools."
Cyber-bullying has been a problem among Island kids for several years now, she said, and it seems that girls are worse about this than boys. "It's all kinds of spreading rumors and lies. In the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, their ways of hurting people are talking about them online, saying horrible, nasty things. They're so quick to want to align themselves with the right group. And you can do this anonymously - that's what's worst about it. It's really a horrible thing, and it's been going on for four or five years now."
Ms. MacElroy said she thinks it's important for adults to learn about new developments like Myspace that affect the lives of their children - and to keep the dangers in perspective.
"Our concern," she said, "is the personal information that can identify you."
Teens, especially younger teens, she said, are prone to bragging about adult behavior in an attempt to be "cool." This brings a risk: "Because it is an enclosed Island, a reputation can develop, and then they can be prejudged on their stories, their bragging. I think that can be a danger more than, you know, some guy coming down from New Hampshire to stalk a 13-year-old girl.
"I think it's really important," she concluded, "that parents become more aware of what's out there for their kids."