Students let `Dear Diary' go public
Sunday, December 11, 2005
This must be another one of those generational things.
Imagine, for a moment, that you keep a diary of your deepest and most personal thoughts. You write, on this day, something like:
"I wish my life were simpler, but it isn't and it's never going to be. So for now I just have to bide the rest of my time in high school until I go to college, away from the ones who hate me."
A student at Birmingham's Alabama School of Fine Arts wrote that one. It's just the beginning. Now imagine pasting your picture and address on that diary and showing it to a friend.
That friend shows it to the whole school, but it doesn't stop there. People pass it on and on until it can be read by anyone who knows anyone who knows you.
It's sort of six degrees of separation from your innermost thoughts.
It sounds crazy when you look at it like that, but it's happening right now in massive numbers. High school and college kids across America and the Birmingham area regularly write down intimate thoughts - many far more personal than the one above - and post them on "friend" Web sites or personal publishing sites like MySpace, Facebook or Xanga. The one above came from Livejournal.com, a site frequented by students at ASFA, Vestavia Hills, Altamont and other schools across the region.
Thomas Wheelock, headmaster of the Altamont School, talked about the sites at a faculty meeting last week. He learned from a parent that students were using MySpace.com, and even submitting pictures and profiles and e-mail addresses. He wouldn't hesitate, he said, to demand to see what his kid had written. He outlined his concerns in a letter to Altamont families.
"The kids do not realize how vulnerable they are or how predators haunt sites such as this," he wrote.
There are other problems.
"People say things they would never say face to face," he wrote. "I have known children hurt badly by the sort of anonymous e-mails that are nasty and mean-spirited."
Some of the entries are school-related, but some describe parties and personal relationships in detail. Many parents would be shocked to read them. Many students would be shocked to know how easy it is to read them. Any parent smart enough to learn any student's user name can follow the links to almost any friend of a friend of a friend.
And if parents can do it, anyone can. I did. It felt creepy.
This is not to say that the sites are without merit. Some students use them to describe science experiments, to talk about school issues, politics, movie and music reviews, or to simply publish their own poetry. Others though, answer surveys with personal questions such as "Who was the last person you kissed?"
Used properly, they provide an amazing creative outlet.
But like anything new, it's easy to dive in too quickly, without knowing the consequences.
Wheelock's words can be a pretty effective warning shot. If only to make students realize they aren't as anonymous as they think. John Archibald's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.