Playing it safe in digital space

A ritual among the young once confined to face-to-face contact in the schoolyard has taken on a new medium. It was only a matter of time. Bullying has taken on a somewhat anonymous face in an era in which most adolescents and teenagers have little slices of themselves on the Internet.

While they’re making new friends and acquaintances — or just keeping in touch with old friends — in popular Web sites like My Space and Facebook, communication comes at the click of an enter button.

With that, too, comes deception. The Internet allows people to create their likeness or pretend to be someone else, with those on the other side of the keyboard being none the wiser. This anonymity breeds courage, and sometimes that courage leads to cruelty.

Matthew Vandeleur, principal at Poulsbo Middle School, deals with the product of that cruelty on almost a daily basis. When students are communicating on My Space, sometimes a fight will ensue. The fighting almost always spills over to the school day.

“Once it affects student learning, then it becomes a school issue,” he said.

Vandeleur handles the cyberfighting the same way he deals with any disagreement between students, he said. He brings the students together for a conversation and tells the students’ parents of the disagreement and where it originated.

Because Internet communications are so prevalent, he said parents simply have to be aware of their children’s online activities.

“Parents should always be aware of what their children are doing online,” he said.

When Chelsea Wilson uses her My Space page to communicate with the outside world, she knows what danger lurks in cyberspace. Like many of her teenaged cohorts, she also knows how to play it safe. The Kingston High School sophomore primarily uses her page to keep in touch with friends she meets at camps and youth retreats.

Because she wants her new friends to know her as a person, she keeps her profile true to life. To prevent her page from being a free-for-all for insults, she set up her page so she controls who is allowed to post messages.

“If I don’t know them, I won’t communicate with them,” she said.

The North Kitsap School District is doing what it can to keep cyberbullying down to a minimum. For starters, while there is no district policy in place to address Web sites like My Space, the district does have a block in place so access to them is denied at all schools in the district, said Bill Every, director of technology and information services.

In addition, under federal guidelines of the Child Internet Protection Act, any school district that receives communication rebates must have a spam filter in place, Every said. The district’s spam filter blocks an average of 100,000 e-mails a day. The filter system also puts a firewall in place.

In effect, the filter keeps children out of sites of the district’s choosing and the firewall keeps outsiders out of the district’s computers.

The district has outsourced the control of those filters to both preserve manhours and sanity in the district.

“If you were to have a person who decided what to block and what not to block, it would be a full-time job and they’d be braindead in no time,” Every said of the tedious task.

The challenge lies in teaching children how to use cyber tools as an effective mode of communication while filtering out the drama associated with them.

“It’s not that we want to be control freaks, but we do have a responsibility to make students responsible users of technology,” he said.

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