The popularity of social networking sites, such as Myspace.com, Facebook.com, Xanga.com, and Friendster.com, raise new and important issues for camp directors intent on protecting their campers and their camps from the dark side of the online world. The recent explosion in membership to such sites (MySpace, for example, grew from zero to 47.3 million members in just two years) only increases the urgency of addressing online behavior and its potential risks and rewards for the camp community.
On these high-tech versions of the "local" hangout, young people post personal information often accompanied by pictures of themselves and their friends. Cloaked in a false sense of anonymity, they too often abandon good judgment, even common sense, by providing intimate details about their lives for all the world to see, including home and e-mail addresses, cell phone numbers, or details about body type, sexual preferences, or alcoholic beverages of choice. And the information flow doesn't stop there. A Dateline NBC investigation of teen pages found scenes of binge drinking, apparent drug use, and sex acts.
Concerns About Youth Safety
Law enforcement officials are so concerned that at least two states, Connecticut and Massachusetts, are investigating the link between these sites and incidents of sexual assault. But they're not going it alone. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says that it has opened dozens of cases nationwide regarding activity on the sites and has received more than 500 complaints, including the following.
Such cases are likely the proverbial "tip of the iceberg," prompting a cascade of overdue media attention.
LJ Ulrich, a student columnist at West Virginia University, checked out MySpace and reported, "I signed on, created my generic profile, and reached out. Then the freaks reached out to me. It's like standing in the kitchen naked and leaving the front door wide open. Anybody can stalk anybody, and anybody can play games. Until it adopts some restrictions, MySpace is just another haven for the freaks of the Internet and naïve ten-year-olds."
Those restrictions may not be far behind. While MySpace itself recently beefed up security on its site, others are jumping into the fray. In Massachusetts, for example, Attorney General Tom Reilly called upon MySpace to put in place strict controls to protect children. "MySpace allows fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds to register as members of its ‘community' and claims to be able to protect their safety," Reilly said. "Our investigation revealed that these measures are not effective and do not protect children from being exposed to inappropriate content they just shouldn't see." He then called on MySpace to improve the safety and security of its site by:
But child predators and inappropriate content aren't the only problems—and harm to youth not the only risk.
A review of Myspace.com reveals "group" pages created by children and teens and incorporating the name, and sometimes the logo, of their school or camp. These virtual campfires allow for cyberbullying toward camps, campers, and staff and the unsupervised exchange of often-inappropriate ideas and pictures that would never be tolerated within the confines of a classroom or cabin. One camp counselor found some of the online profiles of her campers "disturbing." Parents, who in some cases are mercilessly maligned in their child's answers to online questionnaires, have been similarly dismayed.
In some instances, the content amounts to sexual innuendo and in others not-so-subtle sexual solicitation. Also featured are photos of kissing, fondling, and groping (one such site featured a photograph of a penis) and dialogue about getting high, getting wasted, or just plain getting mad. And all of this under the banner of organizations committed to education, youth development, and safety.
A natural reaction might be to simply ban teen participation in online networking. But attempting to deny campers' access may ultimately fail, for they would likely just migrate to other online venues. Besides, social networking sites do have useful purposes, both in terms of youth development and in extending the benefits of summer camp beyond the front gate.
Social Networking Sites and Youth Development
As camp professionals, we are committed to the principles of youth development and the outcomes directly related to what we do. As revealed in Directions, Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience, a study conducted by Philliber Research Associates and the American Camp Association, these include increased self-esteem, independence, leadership, friendship skills, and social comfort. Just as there is a link between camp and healthy development, so too may there be a positive role for social networking sites.
As children mature—and particularly during their teenage years—they are charged with three important developmental tasks.
Each is an important building block toward becoming a happy, healthy, and productive adult. A recent Teens Today study from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Group, established a clear link between a young person's progress in these key areas with their overall Sense of Self. Young people who perceive they are doing well in addressing such issues are more likely than those who don't to feel smart, successful, responsible, and confident.
In many ways, social networking sites facilitate the very type of independence and exploration that allows young people to try on different roles (or personas) and to gather feedback from their all-important, and arguably more objective, peer group. They may also help campers make new friends. One sixteen-year-old camp veteran did so "using MySpace for what it was intended."
Extending Camp Beyond the Front Gate
Social networking sites also provide potential benefits to camps, facilitating year-round connections between campers once largely separated by the unlikely, and burdensome, exercise of keeping in touch through Ma Bell or the U.S. Postal Service. One camper who organized a group site on MySpace explained, "I saw that a lot of people from camp already had accounts and thought it was a good way to connect everybody and keep in touch." That is an important perspective for camp leaders interested in nurturing throughout the year the positive relationships developed during the summer. There are, however, other important steps we should take to keep our campers and our camps safe.
Keeping Campers and Camps Safe
First, it is important to educate campers about the risks associated with online activity and to suggest concrete ways to stay safe. i-SAFE America, www.isafe.org , a nonprofit foundation dedicated to Internet safety education for youth, outlines "The 4 Rs" of Internet safety.
i-SAFE also advises young people to take these precautions.
It is also important to develop protocols for camper use of social networking sites—especially those that link them to your camp or their fellow campers. Once the policies are completed, let your campers and their parents know of your policies in writing. You may also wish to monitor sites for compliance or, better still, encourage self-monitoring and reporting by members of your online camp community. One camper who believes that's the best approach says, "Camp directors should know what's going on, but it shouldn't be their responsibility to address it. We should be given the chance to monitor ourselves and if that doesn't work, the site should be shut down."
Last but not least, notify campers and their parents when campers have violated your policy and follow through with consequences.
Camps can play a particularly valuable role in educating parents about the threats posed by social networking sites, arming them with strategies to help keep their children safe. Wiredsafety.org offers some online safety guidelines for parents.