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.
- Earlier this year, a thirty-three-year-old Alabama man met a fourteen-year-old girl from New Jersey over one site and later abused her in Florida.
- In October 2005, a thirteen-year-old girl from Georgia, whose online profile said she was twenty-nine, was abused by a thirty-year-old South Carolina man.
- Last September, an eleven-year-old girl was fondled in her Connecticut home—while her parents slept—by a man she'd met through an online network and let into her home.
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:
- Instituting an age and identity verification system;
- Equipping every MySpace page with a "Report Inappropriate Content" link;
- Responding to all reports of inappropriate content within twenty-four hours;
- Increasing significantly the number of employees who review images and content on the MySpace Web site;
- Implementing filtering technology that effectively blocks sexually explicit or violent images;
- Immediately removing all advertisements and other MySpace-sponsored content that are inappropriate for children; and
- Offering free, downloadable software that allows parents to block use of MySpace.
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.
- Attaining a stable sense of personal identity
- Becoming more independent from their parents
- Establishing meaningful and fulfilling relationships with their peers
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.
- Recognize techniques used by online predators to deceive.
- Refuse requests for personal information.
- Respond assertively if you are ever in an uncomfortable position online. Exit the program, turn off the computer, tell a trusted friend, or call the police.
- Report any suspicious or dangerous contact that makes you feel uncomfortable.
i-SAFE also advises young people to take these precautions.
- Protect your identifying information (name, sex, age, address, school, teams). It only takes a little information for a predator to identify you.
- Create a username and online profile that is generic and anonymous.
- Know how to exit an inappropriate Web site.
- Guard your pictures. You never know who may be looking at them.
- Keep in mind that chatroom "friends" are not always whom they say they are.
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.
- Personal information stays personal.
- Make sure your child doesn't spend all of his or her time on the computer.
- Keep the computer in a family room, kitchen, or living room, not in your child's bedroom. Knowing you are watching, kids are less likely to put themselves in risky situations, and you can safely oversee what's going on.
- Learn enough about computers so you can enjoy them together with your kids.
- Watch your children when they're online and see where they go.
- Make sure that your children feel comfortable coming to you with questions.
- Keep kids out of chatrooms unless they are monitored.
- Discuss these rules, get your children to agree to adhere to them, and post them near the computer as a reminder.
- Help them find a balance between computing and other activities.
- Remember to monitor their compliance with these rules, especially when it comes to the amount of time your children spend on the computer.
- Get to know their "online friends" just as you get to know all of their other friends.
- Warn them that people may not be what they seem to be. Predators often pose as children to gain our children's trust.
Developing Protocols for Staff
Camps are also well advised to develop protocols for their staff, prohibiting, for example, any online exchange that would be considered a violation of existing personnel policies and the posting of any inappropriate information or photos that can be accessed by campers. You can also use these sites as screening tools when hiring counselors, much as other businesses are doing. Already, reports are surfacing of students being denied jobs by prospective employers who have viewed their personal pages.
Don Schroeder, an employment lawyer in the Boston office of Mintz Levin, says, "While you may not be able to keep people from doing what they want on the Internet, you can certainly take action if you don't like what you see," including dismissing, or not rehiring, any staff member found to be in violation of the policies you have created. He offers the following tips:
- Consistently and fairly apply employment policies in order to avoid the appearance of disparate treatment of employees.
- Instruct your staff that they are prohibited from posting obscene, defamatory, profane, or libelous information.
- Inform your staff that they cannot disseminate any information about the camp that could be considered private, personal, or confidential, including but not limited to pictures of the camp site. Explain the consequences for violation of these policies (e.g., that they could be subjected to disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment).
Risks and Rewards
As with most things Internet, social networking sites offer content both bad and good. At worst, they perpetuate bawdy exhibitionism. At best, they provide a place for the meaningful exchange of creative ideas, memories, and dialogue, keeping young people connected to the friends and experiences that matter most.
In that way, your space is their space, too.
Stephen G. Wallace is director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps and has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He also serves as chairman and CEO of SADD and as an adjunct professor of psychology at Mount Ida College.
Summit Communications Management Corporation • 2006 All Rights Reserved
Originally published in the 2006 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.