Teen angst advertised

Juneau teens' blogging has parents worried; some are asking School Board to ban sites

Posted: Sunday, November 06, 2005

An Internet fad has taken root in Juneau with online teenagers planning parties and bragging about drug and alcohol use.

Hundreds of local teenagers regularly access Internet sites that provide free personal Web pages connected to a network where people can post pictures, write Web logs (or blogs), provide contact information, create personal profiles and have friends and strangers leave messages.

"Miller Light has waaaaay more taste then Bud Light," wrote one 16-year-old from Juneau under a photo posted of him presumably drinking a beer. A 16-year-old Juneau girl wrote: "I wanna boy so drunk he doesn't talk Monday."

Parents Unite, a newly formed Juneau parent-advocacy group, has asked the School Board to ban access to the sites on school computers because of material they say is inappropriate.

"Our biggest mission, I think, is to just genuinely heighten the awareness - let parents know that this is going on," parent Kathi Collum said. "That their kids are doing it and that they as a parent have a responsibility to talk to their kids and make sure the kids know how to go about it safely."

Collum said the group is particularly worried about adolescents glamorizing the use of drugs and alcohol on the sites, and about the posting of personal contact information alongside provocative photographs.

"Our point is not to impede free speech or their ability to express themselves. We just don't want the school district to allow it to go on there (at school), and we want these kids to be safe," parent Amy Deininger said.

Some of the students apparently use their blogs to defiantly defend their rights to expression. One boy in late September wrote that an adult - also an anti-alcohol advocate - "told everybody that I post nasty things on my Web pages, so you should lock your daughters up and not let them play with me. Are these the kind of 'nasty things' she's talking about?" he wrote, followed by a string of about 20 expletives and racial slurs. "The woman is clearly out of her mind."

Three of the Web sites have grabbed the parent group's attention: myspace.com, xanga.com, and livejournal.com. Each has its own style and features, but each carries local students touting drugs and alcohol and candidly discussing the entire spectrum of teenage issues.

The blogs discuss everything from severe animosity toward parents to cheating on tests and virtual bullying. The sites are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Pictures of hashish, boys posing with their shirts off, a razor blade and apparent cocaine, two girls in underwear in a shower, and sexually explicit gossip are among the behaviors and images posted by Juneau teenagers.

"(Kids) do not generally understand that this is the World Wide Web, and it is wide open," Collum said. "Unless you establish a private presence out there, anyone can find you with just a few key strokes, and it's really not that difficult to do it."

She did say, however, that not all of the pages are bad and that many are inventive and introspective. The three mentioned sites allow students to work with a virtual blank slate and provide nearly limitless creative outlets for people to express themselves. It's when the creativity turns to deviance that parents should be concerned, Collum said.

Online party planning

It's difficult to pinpoint how many students are actually using these online journals, with nearly 300 current Juneau-Douglas High School students listed on myspace.com alone. Xanga.com has more than 1,000 people from Juneau listed as having pages, with preteen girls' pages listed alongside grown men's in a citywide search. It's equally difficult to determine how many pages are fabricated, duplicated or embellished. But there seems to be a generous number of teenagers in the community willing to share their illegal behavior with the world on Web sites.

Parents United also worries about online party-networking on the sites. Last weekend police broke up an underage drinking party. Parents, interviewed beforehand, said they had learned about a planned party online.

Early Saturday morning five teenagers were cited for underage drinking and a 52-year-old woman was cited for furnishing alcohol to minors.

The bust led to online chatter this week.

"Sorry you got caught, though, I was totally trying to help you over that fence but you were TANKED," said a note posted on one Juneau teenager's page.

"I stood in someone's backyard for like an hour after I booked it from the cops. (Expletive) haters," was posted on another teen's page.

Juneau police officer Blain Hatch said the department has been notified before about parties disclosed on these sites and will act on instances if they have enough information and time. He said many times the information is about past events and may or may not be accurate.

"If it's certain things that happened in the past that we have no evidence of, it's hard for us to do anything," he said. "But it's nice to know who the players are and what's going on."

The Juneau School District and Juneau-Douglas High School administrators have recently become aware of the students using these types of Web sites in and out of the classroom.

Competing with school

Business teacher and basketball coach Lesslie Knight said online journal sites have become a distraction to the learning environment. She has begun compiling a folder of some of the student pages she has seen, which include pictures of students presumably smoking marijuana and performing hazing rituals.

"They put everything out there," she said.

Knight said it is becoming increasingly difficult to monitor students' activities in the computer labs because of their abilities to multitask. She said students can have research, instant messenger and blogs on the screen at the same time.

"I think the hugest thing is making parents aware, making teachers aware and making students aware that it's not appropriate in the work environment or the school environment," she said.

Monitoring the sites is also difficult because the majority of the traffic to online journal sites is done outside of school, Knight said. She said some students believe these are personal journals.

"If you're going to put that on the Internet people are going to view it," she said. "It's public as soon as you put it out there."

Tough to crack down

JDHS computer technician Barbara Kelly-Page said the school has been working on ways to better monitor Internet use and abuse on the school's roughly 500 computers. New software has been installed this school year that gives administrators the ability to monitor the content of a certain number of the computers. It has the option of taking photos of the screen and locking students out of a computer when viewing inappropriate material. The school also has an Internet filter that blocks pornographic and indecent sites, she said.

"These online sites, where they put their pictures and can post instant messages, seem to be the up-and-coming thing," Kelly-Page said. "There certainly are a number of them out there that they are getting into."

Blocking individual sites would be difficult because of the number of them available and because they keep evolving, Kelly-Page said.

Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the School Board and the district are discussing options and possible solutions to Internet accessibility in the schools. She said JDHS students and their parents must sign a technology agreement at the beginning of the school year.

"The use and visiting of these kinds of blogs (at school) is strictly prohibited," Cowan said.

The high school has yet to discipline students over the blog issue, she said. But students could face detention, suspension or possibly expulsion depending on what type of infraction may occur.

"As a district we can't discipline something they did outside of school," Cowan said. "If there was some evidence on there that something happened in school then we certainly could and would conduct an investigation to what happened in school."

JDHS Principal Bernie Sorenson said parents, teachers and administrators need to work together to raise awareness and find a solution to the issues these Web sites create.

Connecting with kids

The district is in the second of a three-year, $3 million healthy schools grant, which enabled JDHS to hire a new student assistance counselor, Terry Gonwa, who specializes in substance abuse counseling. Gonwa said she was shocked when she learned about the contents of the online journal Web sites.

Particularly shocking to her was an 11-year-old girl's page that claimed she was lonely.

"I thought, you know, this is just an accident waiting to happen," Gonwa said.

She said the community needs to have an open dialogue about the subject and act on it.

"We need to stay involved with these kids," Gonwa said. "The decisions that kids are making in high school through this age period are ones that will affect them for the rest of their lives."

Drugs and alcohol are the choices teenagers should be especially careful with, she said.

"Research shows that when kids use (drugs) it has negative consequences on their intellectual development, on their physical development and on their social development," Gonwa said.

Parents United also has several other goals besides restricting noneducational Internet activity. They include a year-round zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy for all activities, lower drug use at JDHS, and convincing the city of Juneau to take over minor-consuming charges from the state.

Most of all, the parents' want to create healthier lives for their children, Deininger said.

"We care about them and we love them, and we don't want to see them hurt or dead," she said. "We love them. If we didn't, we wouldn't be doing this because, believe me, it is a huge pain in the butt."

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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