Empire editorial: Watch your children, but let them grow up

Posted: Friday, November 11, 2005

Juneau parents and school administrators are learning that when it comes to Internet use, their children are more or less like other American youths. They use online sites to gossip, to write their opinions, to say what they like and don't like (including illicit activities and foul language) and yes, even to organize underage drinking parties.

It's something that parents and teachers should know, but it's nothing to get hysterical about. That's why a group of parents who worry about the kids and how they're using school property is to be commended for alerting the Juneau School Board - but not to be encouraged in going too far.

At issue are Web sites such as myspace.com, xanga.com and livejournal.com, allowing students and anyone else to post a personal site and keep a running Web log, or blog, with friends and others.

Parents, organizing under the name Parents United and asking for action in the schools, worry primarily about two things: a striking volume of drug and alcohol chatter and the possibility that predatory adults could use the personalized sites for online stalking.

They have asked the school district to shut down any access to the sites on school computers. To the extent that this is possible without blocking other learning opportunities, it is a move as welcome and justifiable as confiscating comic books during algebra class in decades of old. Parents, as always, would also be advised to discuss issues of drug and alcohol use with their children, and to explain the potential dangers of meeting people through Internet contacts.

That, though, is where the intervention should end. The School Board and others in the district have an obvious charge to keep students focused on learning during school hours. They have no such responsibility once school ends, and parents should not expect school officials to act as censors by penalizing or even confronting students whose online speech they don't like.

Since the Empire ran a story about the phenomenon and parent reactions on Sunday, students have responded with e-mails and letters reminding that not all should be tainted by their peers' actions, and that their behavior is not unique in the nation.

Indeed, last week USA Today published a story saying at least 8 million American teens blog online. It noted that the vast majority of teen bloggers, while using ribald vocabularies, merely seek entertainment or friendship. Think of students of old using telephones, or those of the past decade using cell phones. Each new technology poses new issues in parenting, but, just as surely, each offers new possibilities for students. Every parent should warn their child against putting too much personal information where strangers can find it. But it's likely that many children would tell them that having a personal Web site is empowering and inspires creativity.

The USA Today account sounded an ominous tone by reporting that this month a private school in New Jersey ordered students to dismantle their personal Internet diaries or be suspended. That may be the easy option, but it is no solution.

Children have their parents to answer to at home, including for thoughts and activities laid bare on the Web. They have their teachers to educate them at school, and to demand their attention. And when it comes to the Internet, they have their rights like anyone.

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