In the Trenches: Internet Challenges

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

Dear
Bob,


We have a counselor-in-training program at our coed day camp where we typically
have about a dozen or so fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds enrolled. Occasionally
we have had a problem with CITs (counselors in training) who are, of course,
technically still campers, fraternizing with staff who may in some cases be
only two or three years older than they. We experienced a new twist to this
problem this summer.

Evidently there is a Web site called MyJournal.com, where subscribers
write fairly open, often provocative or revealing notes about themselves
and others. On one of the sites, a fifteen-year-old female (subscribers
don’t use their real names, but establish “profiles” about
themselves) was talking about how she was being harassed by an older
male counselor at our camp. She went into great detail (we looked it
up once we heard about it) about his language and behavior toward her,
and talked about her ambivalence about him (“He’s so cute!” countered
by “And it kind of creeps me out!”).

You can imagine our concern. Though we could surmise from the details
both who the male counselor and the CIT might be, we didn’t know
how much of what was in her log was true, whether or not to intervene,
and furthermore, how we should intervene.

Bob, what would you do?

— WebWorried

Dear Web,

Though there are many “new twists” brought to camp professionals
by new technology, the human problems they present are as old as camp.
Before I suggest some ways to proceed, let me acknowledge a new set of
challenges that will undoubtedly affect camps across the country in the
form of live, onsite journals or diaries.

The site you mention is one of many so called online journal sites
where people can, in most cases, subscribe for free and set up their
own web logs, or “blogs,” as the kids call them, to share
personal information, stories, experiences, and so on. The Perseus Development
Corporation (PDC), which specializes in software for online surveys,
estimates that there will be 10 million such active sites by the end
of 2004. In other words, this is a rapidly growing phenomenon, one which
is wildly popular among teens (PDC says that over 50 percent of those
with blogs are in the thirteen to nineteen age range. Ninety percent
are thirteen to twenty-nine.) The most popular sites are LiveJournal,
Xanga, and Blurty. Teens write in and read each others’ Web logs
and pass out their LiveJournal addresses as readily as they do their
screen names and cell phone numbers.

Back to your dilemma. I realize the summer is over, but had you contacted
me then, the following is what I would have recommended.

If you feel relatively certain that you know the identity of the person
whose Web log is causing the concern, I would approach her discreetly
and have a talk. Start by simply checking in to see how her summer is
going and how she is getting along in the CIT program. (In fact, I would
do this as a matter of course with each CIT. First, it is simply good
practice; second, it makes meeting with her less conspicuous and may
help her keep her guard down.)

Once you have done this “check-in,” mention that an issue
has come to your attention and refer generally to the Web log. Tell her
that you know that such online sites exist and that you are concerned
about whether all the CITs feel safe at camp — including safe from
any possible harassment or the feeling of being bothered. Depending on
your personal relationship with your CIT, I would calmly and matter-of-factly
ask her if she has seen or heard about this particular site and whether
it is hers. Reassure her that you want her, like every other camper at
camp, to feel safe and that, right now, all you are trying to determine
is that she is safe.

Obviously, she can tell you it is her blog, or she can deny it. Even
if she tells you that she is the author, you may get a denial or confirmation
of the problem. (Remember that children do invent things, so remain neutral
and avoid jumping to any quick conclusions.)

If she denies the Web log is hers, ask if she knows whose it might
be, and simply reiterate your concern that every camper feel safe at
camp. Say (as if she already knows), “Of course, Web logs are open
for everyone and anyone to see and once word gets out, as it always does
at camp, everyone will be reading this one!” Coincidentally, mention
that it is probably only a matter of time before the author’s identity
becomes known.

Muse out loud how you couldn’t help but wonder whether the author
of the site didn’t want you to see it, since it is in such a public
forum. Tell her you’d appreciate any help she could give you, and
if she thinks of anything, she could always let you know. Keeping the “door
open” is always a good idea with teens!

Have a sit-down with trusted members of your senior staff. Discuss whether
they have detected or heard about such harassment or inappropriate behavior,
and have them discretely keep an eye on the suspected “couple.” Impress
on everyone that there is no guilt unless there is clear evidence, but that
you want to make sure everyone feels safe.

If your CIT does admit the site is hers, ask her if the situation she
is describing is a real situation here at camp. If it is, you need to
speak with the counselor involved and determine if there has been a breach
of trust or inappropriate conduct. If so, the CIT’s parents need
to be informed, and the counselor needs to be fired. A mandatory report
may also have to be made to the proper authority if there has been any
inappropriate intimate behavior (touching, fondling, etc.). Remind your
staff that they play a specific, official role as caretakers of campers,
which includes CITs, and that even though there may only be a few years
difference between them, CITs are still campers.

I wouldn’t contact the parents of the CIT until after you have
had your initial conversation with her and have gotten more information.
Doing so may shatter your trust with her. Once you have more information
you can determine what to say to her parents about the situation.

One last note: In all situations such as the one you describe, your
relationship with your CIT (and with your staff) count for so much. The
more you remain calm, exude warmth, and are open and direct, the easier
it is for teens to talk with you, especially regarding sensitive situations.
Good luck!

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing
in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for
Bunk1.com and can be reached via e-mail at InTheTrenches@bunk1.com or
by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by
American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published
in the 2004 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.

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