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October 8, 2004

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The IM life of middle-schoolers, Part 2: A school's role

Of course, young Net users will tell you that their social scene is not limited to instant-messaging via AIM, Yahoo, MSN, or ICQ. Depending on their social network, it's also at,,,, the angrier, etc. Besides IM, MySpace is the online hangout of choice at Amanda's school, an independent middle school in Salt Lake City (which she asked not to be named); at Evergreen High School in San Jose, Calif., it's Xanga (see 7/16). Cell phones play a role too, and occasionally email. It's all very fluid.

So naturally what goes on in this online space spills over into school, "in the sense that they have to show up and sit next to one another the next day and they have to make eye contact and interact with each other," said Amanda, a kind, youthful, tech-literate, very professional school counselor. "Sometimes I'll sit the whole buddy list down" to work through one of the social emergencies she described for Part 1) but asked not to be detailed in order to protect counselor-student confidences.

She started working with buddy list members last year, when there was "a kind of explosion" of Net-related incidents at her school. Students would come in crying, parents would call. I suspect, though, the sudden swirl of IM concerns was due partly to the fact, confirmed by parents involved, that both students and parents knew Amanda understood the technology and the psychology. She had also achieved a certain rapport with the kids - they wanted to talk to her about their personal and social crises. And she was there for them full-time, during all school hours. That's a luxury not all schools can afford. But, even so, I believe there's something of interest in this school's experience for anyone involved in a school community.

Amanda's school generally likes to be contacted when something comes up in the online social scene of its students. "Then we can facilitate the day-to-day interaction at school," she said. "There may have been an incident the night before and kids don't come to me, but the body language and voice communications are not healthy that day, and rumors start, and it can just escalate.... Any incident can get all out of hand after just an hour of being in school."

When something comes up, it "comes directly to me," Amanda told me. "What we're trying to do," she said, describing the approach of the school's Discipline Committee, "is take a therapeutic approach to understanding IM, rather than an initial disciplinary approach.... I help the kids tie empathy and reality to what they type.

"Say I get a heads-up from a parent - so-'n'-so is having a hard time coming to school today because someone said something mean or embarrassing in IM." She described her first step: "I really don't like these words, but for lack of better ones: I first call in the victim and the perpetrator separately. Get their understanding of what happened. I tell them, 'I got a heads-up on the IM interaction last night.' I get their stories. That way I feel like neither party feels attacked when we all get together. Sometimes I'll have a whole buddy list to work with - two groups of girls or 10 boys, 3 girls, whatever."

I told her I thought that could take months! "It can!" she answered. "But it's also very quick work. It happens so quickly [meaning, she acts on it immediately], that they realize what they've done wrong."

"How do you know who's involved?" I asked. "I generally know from what the parents told me or, if the report's inaccurate, the kids will set me straight very quickly. Then I bring the two kids or the two groups of kids together and facilitate an interaction. I explain where I got the information, what I'm understanding from both sides, then have whoever was involved look at the other party and tell them to explain to me what happened. 'Can you look at the other person and say what you said in IM to their face - the very same words?'" Sometimes they're really awful words, and this is very difficult for both sides.

"Then the person [who got the mean IM] has the opportunity to respond," Amanda continued. "It could be a response of crying, it could be anger - whatever it needs to be. I'll say to the attacker, why do you think they're responding that way? I'll say to the victim: What do you need to hear from this person now? They're often just mortified. [But the message they're both or all getting is] that the victim then has a voice, and I am supporting that response, that we're working therapeutically through it. Then I see where that takes us.

"I end any session on a good note: 'What have we learned here today? How are you feeling leaving my office and going into the real world? How do you talk to your parents about our session today? I'm going to be calling your parents and telling them how this went today. [As for the students,] everything that was said here, stays here. You don't go out and gossip about what happened here - no bad-mouthing, no rumors. If that happens, it goes to a disciplinary level."

"Sometimes if the situation is really bad it starts out with the principal and me in the session together - if the language is so bad, whatever. Sometimes we'll do it together right off the bat. We send the message that 'this is therapeutic, but you also need to know you're in trouble'."

An end note for anyone interested in the psychology behind Amanda's process: It's no coincidence that middle school is where IM social issues get fairly intense. Not only is 11-13 an age level where kids don't have driver's licenses and other means to get together and socialize face-to-face, as Amanda explains in Part 1. Besides the growing pre-adolescent interest in socializing, 11-13 is also when children are just beginning, developmentally, to be able to understand abstract implications, she told me. "Not till 7th grade is a child capable of abstract thought that informs behavior" - for example, being able to imagine how one's comments will affect a person at the other end of an online "conversation." Understanding this, I think, can add compassion to our work with online kids, as is clearly the case in Amanda's work with her students.

For further investigation, Amanda later referred me to the book Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom, by psychiatrist William Glasser.

Next week there will actually be a Part 3, because of fresh material on IM tech options for parents. Stay tuned! (And email me any comments or experiences you'd like to share on any of this - via Here's Part 1.

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Web News Briefs

  1. Anti-P2P: Carrot & stick

    There was lots of online music news this week, not least of which was the latest round of record-industry lawsuits against US file-sharers (762), Reuters reports, and European ones (459). In Europe, recording industry ire was directed mostly at users of eDonkey, Kazaa, and Gnutella, according to a separate Reuters report. Meanwhile, the New York Post reports that the thousands of lawsuits to date have barely made a dent - "23 million people are still using peer-to-peer services ... and worse yet, experts say the RIAA's scare tactics are beginning to be ignored."

    The much more interesting carrot part of the industry's strategy was chronicled by the Washington Post in its look at (note this is the online "hangout" popular among Amanda's students, above). Warner Bros. allows its musicians' work to be previewed at MySpace, where users can "post personal profiles with pictures, set up blogs, chat on bulletin boards, play games and so on, combining elements of,, and America Online," according to the Post. The idea is to get R.E.M.'s 13th album exposure with a younger crowd, MySpace's official "sweet spot" of 16-to-24-year-olds (there must be some age inflation among its middle-school fans), who can also "see band tour dates, buy the album at, download cell-phone ring tones, and read a band biography. MySpace drew 2.5 million visitors in August, the Post reports. On Capitol Hill, one of Congress's efforts to crackdown on file-sharing by going after its enablers (the P2P networks) has have been delayed. "The Senate Judiciary Committee has postponed a final review of the Induce Act after negotiations among the principal parties involved in crafting the bill collapsed," Wired News reports.

  2. Gaming an addiction?

    For some kids, reportedly. The Washington Post illustrates with one Washington state teenager's experience. After she noticed her 16-year-old was playing Socom II sometimes in the middle of the night, his mom had him work with a therapist who had about eight other gaming-addiction patients (not her main practice, but part of it). The therapist points to "the God effect" as one of the main attractions of these games for teenagers - how they empower players by giving them the feeling they're at the "center of the universe." Symptoms of addiction (to most anything) to look out for: withdrawal and isolation. Setting limits is offered as a key solution. For further information, The Post refers to Online Gamers Anonymous (the site loaded very slowly when I clicked to it), and there's a sidebar, "Signs of Trouble," and the Post's gaming news roundup.

  3. Global gaming competition

    Is this where a gamer at your house is headed?: Professional gamers - young people who actually make a living playing games - faced off at the World Cyber Games finals in San Francisco this week. "That a small number of this generation's pinball wizards can support themselves playing video games comes as a surprise even to some of those doing so," the New York Times reports. The article zooms in on competitor 20-year-old Matt Leto of Allen, Tex., "recognized by many as the world's greatest Halo player." Halo, I learned from the Times, is an Xbox first-person-shooter game (whereby the gamer looks out at the Halo world from behind a gun). Of course there are other roles besides gamers in this growing industry. For example, Andrei Mooi is USA vice president of the Seoul-based World Cyber Games, one of the largest organizations running international gaming leagues or tournaments. Some 700 gamers from more than 60 countries competed in San Francisco this week. Here's the very latest coverage from Wired News, as well as the BBC.

  4. E-rate on hold

    The Washington Post called it "schoolhouse shock," the Federal Communications Commission's quiet decision two months ago to put the e-rate on hold. The decision, with no notice, is "causing significant hardships at schools and libraries," the Post adds. The New York Times reports that "by one estimate, as much as $1 billion in expected grants could be suspended by the end of the year," and the FCC came under sharp criticism from Congress this week because of its decision. This may be good news for the Alliance for Childhood, which just released a report that "the high-tech, screen-centered life style of today's children - at home and at school - is a health hazard and the polar opposite of the education they need to take part in making ethical choices in a high-tech democracy." The report, "Tech Tonic: Towards [sic] a New Literacy of Technology," can be found here. The Alliance's controversial previous report, "Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood," sent a similar message in 2000. Your views on technology's pluses and minuses for kids are always welcome - please send them!

  5. EarthLink: Too much spyware

    The average Net-connected PC has 26 spyware programs on it, EarthLink, one of the US's largest Internet service providers has found. That's unwanted malicious software EarthLink's on computers like yours and mine. "Spyware programs hide in PCs and secretly monitor user activity. Typically, spyware arrives bundled with freeware or shareware, or through email or instant messages. The programs are difficult to remove and may cause computers to run slowly or even crash," CNET reports. EarthLink worked with PC security company Webroot to scan more than 3 million computers between January and last month, finding 83 million instances of spyware." For anti-spyware help and a family perspective on the spyware problem, see "Spyware & an 8-year-old," 7/09, and Two popular free spyware-detect-and-destroy programs are Spybot and Ad-Aware; download them at and Tucows, respectively.

    The good news is, two anti-spyware bills "took another step toward law this week" (passed by the House of Representatives), the Washington Post reports, and the Federal Trade Commission week filed the first US case "against software companies accused of infecting computers with intrusive 'spyware' and then trying to sell people the solution," according the Post reported in a separate piece.

  6. Hip data storage?!

    And what could be hip about data storage? a parent logically might ask. Well, the makers of the teen-only hip-e computer get it (see the 9/10 issue). If you're a teenage early adopter, having a "flash drive" means you can store your tunes in a lipstick-size tube dangling "from key chains and backpacks - or even from the necks of users - as if pendants signifying a cult of convenient computing," the New York Times reports. In fact, I predict flash drives will be mainstream for teenagers in no time. Because of their high capacity, IPods are used as flash drives - people store Word docs and Quicken files on them to carry back and forth between home and office PCs (the way we used to use floppy disks). Floppies stored 1.4 megabytes of data, while flash drives store 32 megabytes to 2 gigabytes, the Times explains. That's a lot of tunes and photos! Seriously, some students are required to have them for school - a dad and Office Depot manager in Annapolis, Md., discovered that recently, the Times reports, when he saw "a gaggle of teenagers" clustered around a flash drive display case.

  7. New search tool: Clusty

    The slightly odd name is for the way it "cluster searches," USA TODAY reports. "For instance, entering 'San Francisco' into's search box produces a set of general results at the center of the Web page, with a list of more specific categories, such as 'Bay,' 'Hotel,' 'Art,' 'University' and 'Giants' featured at the left. Clicking on any of the subgroups delivers a new list of links in the center of the page while still preserving the different groups. Ask Jeeves's also cluster searches, but Clusty - four years in the making - is more "sophisticated and user-friendly," USA TODAY adds. Which points to the goal all search engines are after these days: the best way to narrow down the flood of information available to us all on the Internet.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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