Connected To Nowhere -- Internet use can isolate kids instead of linking them to the world
Byline: Johanna Ambrosio
Section: IN DEPTH/ Kids & The Net
Volume: Issue: 1087
Mary Ellen Handy, now a junior in a private high school for girls in northern New Jersey, has a
message for anyone who thinks cyberbullying isn't so bad. Not only was her freshman year of high
school absolute hell emotionally, but she developed ulcers and other physical ailments from her
Things got so bad that Handy couldn't keep food down and would lie on her couch at home,
holding her stomach and crying for long periods. Mary Lou Handy, Mary Ellen's mother, says her
daughter is usually unflappable and, with two older brothers, is accustomed to teasing around the
house. But this was different, and Mary Lou-a middle-school teacher who has seen her share of
schoolyard fights- says she was surprised at "what that type of stress can do to someone
Mary Ellen is just one example of a paradox of online life: Kids use the Internet to connect to
other people, with E-mail, instant messaging, blogs, and social networking services like
MySpace.com. But the Internet also can be a place where kids are harassed or become so
engrossed that they're practically swallowed by their computers.
Some kids who run into these problems become isolated and depressed, their grades suffer, they
develop eating disorders, and they fail to develop real-world social skills. And online role- playing
can turn kids into habitual liars.
One 16-year-old boy who was dumped by his first serious girlfriend over the phone found a fuller
explanation for her actions on her instant messenger profile. Their entire network of social
contacts-friends of friends in multiple high schools and so on-also learned that the breakup was
about a lack of "chemistry" between them. The boy skipped school the next day, and he wondered
aloud to his stepmother why the information had to be on the Internet for all to see.
Parry Aftab, a privacy lawyer who founded Teenangels, an organization that teaches kids about
online safety, says the breadth and depth of new types of behavior among children related to
Internet use has made her rethink Teenangels' mission. Its focus is now what she calls "cyber-
wellness" instead of just safety. Parents can take action to mitigate some of the negative effects
on their kids (see box, above).
Dr. Robert Kraut, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied online behavior for
more than 10 years, says that happy people use technology to support their in-person
relationships instead of using it to make new friends online. "Lots of people are figuring out where
E-communication is fitting into their lives and, in many cases, are doing it successfully," he says.
Of course, nobody can know for sure what the future will bring for this most-wired generation of
12- to 18-year-olds. It may be pointless to think too far ahead, because technology changes too
quickly for anyone to measure its effects with certainty. Parents have always worried about the
spread of new technology-including television in the 1960s-and most people ultimately adapt
innovations into their lifestyle in a healthy way, or at least in a way that does no long-term harm.
Still, the Internet and technology are so pervasive in the lives of children and teens that one can't
help but wonder how harmful they might be. Some 82% of kids are online by the seventh grade,
according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. And a Kaiser Family Foundation study
last year found that people from ages 8 to 18 spend an average of 6.5 hours each day connected
to something electronic. If you count the time spent multitasking- updating a MySpace Web page
while listening to an iPod, for instance- that number jumps to 8.5 hours of online activity packed
into 6.5 actual hours.
Carnegie Mellon's Kraut has been tracking online behavior and its effects since 1995, when his
HomeNet program handed out Internet- connected PCs to families. The program now tracks 400
adults and 100 teens. Among Kraut's findings: The more people use the Internet, the less they
socialize and the less they communicate with family members.
For teenagers especially, increased Internet usage corresponds with a decline in social support.
Although Internet communications and sites like MySpace are supposed to expand people's
networks of friends, "we're not seeing that expansion leading to social benefits," Kraut says. In
other words, many hours trolling online for casual conversation with strangers does not a
Certain kids become too isolated, says Dr. David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. A
shy or overweight kid with acne can become a football star or cheerleader by creating an avatar
on a multiplayer game or a persona on MySpace. "A degree of this is healthy," Fassler says, "but
if it starts to become the primary focus, it can become a problem."
One 14-year-old was setting his alarm clock to get up at 2 a.m. to participate in a real-time,
online fantasy game. His single- parent mom was unaware of this activity until she just happened
to be awake one night and saw her son straggle to the PC, half asleep. When confronted, his
response was that his gaming team needed him.
It's a vicious cycle: A shy or depressed kid stays online for hours at a clip and becomes even more
shy or depressed. When kids are online so much, they sometimes don't do their homework or pay
full attention in school because their energy is sapped by their online world. They miss out on
other activities, including sports, and they don't spend time with their "real-world" peers and
family members. Obesity, a rising epidemic in America, is especially problematic for the kids who
sit and snack at their PCs for hours at a time.
Obesity isn't the only eating disorder linked to the Internet, however. Fassler warns about a
growing number of sites that teach kids how to stay thin by developing eating disorders. Known
as "pro- ana" sites, they present anorexia as a lifestyle choice.
Experts talk about the "opportunity costs." Instead of taking the opportunity to have dinner with
family members or talk with an older sibling about a new crush, kids are holed up in their rooms,
playing a game or sending text messages to friends.
BULLIED AND TORMENTED
As for cyberbullying, it's not just the latest pop psychiatry hang-up. A team at York St. John
University College in the United Kingdom recently released a survey, four years in the making, of
more than 11,000 children. Some 15% of the kids reported receiving nasty or aggressive
messages from peers.
Mary Ellen Handy's problems began with a friend. The trouble started when Handy began dating
the friend's former prom date. "I asked her if she was OK with it, and she said yes because she
only liked him as a friend," Handy says. But the friend had a big problem with the relationship-and
the IM and MySpace attacks came fast and furious. The other girl recruited her circle of friends to
help with the harassment, Handy says. "I just couldn't get away from it," she explains.
Handy's school requires students to have notebook computers for doing homework and referring
to virtual textbooks. "So I'd be sitting in class or the library," Handy says, "and then this horrible
message would pop up, calling me a name." The same thing would happen when she went home.
MySpace posters, on her page and others, would refer to her as a slut.
She tried changing her IM screen name a few times, but that didn't solve the problem. It took a
year for the situation to calm down. Now the two girls avoid each other.
In other cases, "kids are being taunted and tormented and told not to tell anybody," Fassler says.
"There have been cases of extortion: 'Bring money to school or I'll beat you up.'" And even
though this is all done online, it's just as real to kids and has the same emotional ramifications as
schoolyard bullying, he says. Some victims won't go to school, while others become depressed or
even suicidal. Unlike in the schoolyard, no teachers are around to break things up or help the kids
TAUGHT TO LIE
Kids face relentless marketing online, and they're bamboozled into giving up personal information
with the promise of prizes. Young children especially must be taught not to give out their personal
information, because their inclination is to tell the truth.
There are dozens of recent cases where online sexual predators used social networking sites to
lure underage victims (see story, p. 34). Experts say parents are starting to react to those stories
and work with their kids to help keep them safe.
Some parents advise kids to give out phony names and false information to protect their privacy
and shield them from would-be predators. That creates its own problems, attorney Aftab says.
"We're raising situational liars," she says. "Do they know when they're lying and when they're
What's more, kids are learning that they can engage in high-risk activities online, often
anonymously and with no consequences. A teenager can slur a black classmate on a white
supremacist site. Or a girl can post seductive photos of herself and claim to be 17 when she's only
Aftab says many kids, particularly between the ages of 11 and 14, have no impulse control.
"There's nothing uglier than a 12-year-old who's online," she says. "They've got the power before
they're prepared for it emotionally."
It's not just the younger set that's unprepared. Older teens are having more virtual sex-where
they chat via IM or E-mail about having sex with each other-and that, too, is having a real-world
effect, says Doug Fodeman, a former high school science teacher and now IT director at
Brookwood Elementary School in Manchester, Mass.
Fodeman, who gives parental workshops on online safety, says teens who start talking online may
feel they know each other better than they really do. When they actually meet for the first time
after sharing intimate details of their lives on IM or MySpace, the physical relationship may
progress much more quickly than it would have otherwise.
Fodeman also notes a marked increase in the amount of IM-speak such as LOL-laughing out loud-
showing up in kids' homework and papers. Students don't capitalize or try to spell words correctly,
and they overuse acronyms. "You might say I sound like an old curmudgeon, but it's abhorrent,"
he says. "Instead of students learning skills in school that find their way into the virtual world,
we're seeing the opposite."
NOT ALL BAD
Even with all the potential dangers, child-development and other experts are quick to point out many
benefits. Children can, and often do, stay in touch with friends who have moved away, or with far-
flung family members. Shy children can sometimes find a community and say things from the comfort
of their home that they're not able to say in person. A child with a rare medical condition has a ready-
made support network. Rural kids can stay in touch with others who are isolated geographically.
And then there's the matter of information online. Kids routinely look up all sorts of things that have
nothing to do with their schoolwork, from information on a parent's illness to online quizzes about their
own sexuality. "Kids who are struggling to define their own sexual orientation can find helpful
information and reassurance from kids who have been through a similar experience," Fassler says.
When this generation enters the workforce, its computer skills will be superior to those of past
generations. They will know how to find and manipulate information, and this group is particularly
adept at analyzing images and visual data. Multimedia is no challenge to these kids; indeed, it's the
only way to go. Children as young as 7 are learning how to embed audio and video files in text.
NETTING IT OUT
The bottom line is that, with appropriate rules and guidance from parents, most kids who venture online
will do just fine. Whether a child is vulnerable depends in part on his or her personality, whether
they're involved in other (nonvirtual) activities, and whether the Internet is being used to connect with
existing friends, family, and schoolmates instead of merely making idle chitchat with strangers.
"The jury is out in terms of big-picture impact," says Dave Greenfield, director of the Center for
Internet Behavior and author of Virtual Addiction (New Harbinger, 1999). But he says there's no doubt
there will be some effect. "Does trying to talk to someone as you're text messaging dilute interpersonal
interactions? Does it remove the ability to be fully present-the light is on, but you're not really at
Greenfield recalls one client who took away his daughter's cell phone because she refused to stop text
messaging whenever her parents tried to introduce her to someone. "I really have to work hard to not
let technology encroach, and I think teens are less conscious of the encroachment," he says.
Ultimately, Greenfield says, this is as much about our society as it is about any one child. "It's a
statement our culture is making- that convenience, portability, and managing and extending our time
are more important than the quality of human interaction," he says.
What's important is knowing when to turn technology off-how to say no. Or as the site Lifehacker puts
it, "Geek to live, don't live to geek."