One day in 1998 when my mother picked me up from school, she was carrying a large white envelope. I was in 10th grade and had applied to join the Spirit of America National Honor Band, a group of young musicians from around the country that toured Europe each summer. The envelope contained the group’s decision.
“Remember, you’re younger than most members of the band, so if you don’t make it this year we will just reapply next year,” my mom said to me as I tore into the package. Inside were several pages of multi-colored paper, but sitting on top was a patriotic-looking letter from the director. I read the first word, “Congratulations,” and my body flooded with excitement.
A few months later I was getting off a plane in Frankfurt, Germany, one of the youngest of a 150-member group touring with just a handful of adults. We were given just three rules for the trip: Be at dinner together in the hotel each night; Be in our rooms by curfew (usually 11pm), and be on the bus in the morning at the time designated. Apart from that, I was free to explore Europe without supervision as a 16-year-old inexperienced and naïve boy.
That amount of freedom at such a young age could ruin some kids’ lives. Lucky for me, I was mostly able to avoid trouble. But today, that same amount of freedom, or perhaps even more, is easily accessible to teens or even children without ever leaving their bedrooms.
The Internet provides an opportunity to explore the world and, because social media is so ubiquitous, offers the ability to communicate with anyone at any time in any part of the world. This is an awesome privilege, just as exploring different European cities was for me as a teen, but with it comes some very serious dangers.
Because I work in digital media, I constantly experiment with new tools online. One trend that has seen explosive growth in the last couple years is live-streaming, using a webcam to broadcast live, usually to complete strangers. This is a neat tool that allows users to meet new people and organizations to extend their reach by inviting people from around the world to attend events or meetings without the hassle of traveling. But like most things, there is a dark side.
Stickam.com is the most popular live-streaming site for teens with about 9 million users. After registration, a user is given a “room” that can be basically customized -- a lot like Facebook. With the click of a button, a user can broadcast from her/his webcam to the world. As other users troll the site looking at single images of “who’s live” they decide which show to watch. The fact that the decision to watch someone is made from a single image is telling enough as to the potential for meaningful connections. And because users know they will get more viewers with a compelling profile image, they customize it in ways that make it stand out. For many teens, this often means posing in a sexually suggestive manner.
If you enter one of the rooms on Stickam (or any one of the other live-streaming websites such as Blogtv.com or Ustream.com), you’ll quickly find nearly-anonymous users who are chatting via an AOL-style chat room with the user who is broadcasting live. Very often (more often than not, actually) teenage girls in these chat rooms are asked repeatedly and aggressively to do sexual things, to strip, pose, kiss, or more depending on how accommodating the girl is to the requests. When given the prospect of attracting more viewers, many of these girls oblige without thinking of the long-term consequences.
Online predators are familiar with ways to save and share these broadcasts. A cursory Google search reveals that these once live broadcasts are archived on pornography websites, forever preserving the mistakes of teens, sure to haunt them in the future.
There has been a lot of criticism of these sites, Stickam especially, in the recent years as they’ve become so popular. The New York Times found that the company that owns Stickam.com, Advanced Video Communications, is owned by Wataru Takahashi, a businessman who also owns DTI Services, a network of websites offering live sex shows. Despite these revelations, it is nearly impossible to govern the actions of users on a site that allows users to post content in a live environment. For example, it is as simple as a single click to lie about your age in order to create an account, and retroactively deleting the accounts of those who abuse any terms of service does little to stop the lasting consequences of some of these actions. Some sites like BlogTV have separated their underage users from their 18+ users so that the two can’t interact. Unfortunately, predators easily circumvent the age barrier by simply posing as a teenager.
Traveling around Europe as a 16-year-old boy was a life-changing experience for me. The freedom I was afforded allowed me to gain confidence as I navigated foreign streets, sampled unidentifiable foods, and managed what seemed then like Monopoly money. I got lost, I drank alcohol (legal in Europe at 16), and I even got robbed once. But despite the dangers, that freedom in many ways defined who I am today. Likewise, the web, with all of its scary corners and potential dangers, is a wonderful thing. Teens should be allowed to explore and experiment, to get lost and even discover what we wish they wouldn't. But parents must understand just how much freedom the web provides in order to set productive boundaries that protect teens.
The solution is not to forbid the use of these tools, but to teach users how to handle the freedom they offer. Further, simple things can be done in the home to safeguard your teenager. Ask your teens to leave their doors open when they are using the computer, or just keep a computer in a family room rather than in their bedrooms. Allow your kids to explore the web, but keep aware of emerging trends so that you can help them navigate their online life safely. And I think the single best way to protect your children is to communicate, to ask them questions about what they find and what they are doing on the web, to make them feel as if they can share with you when some creep asks them to remove their clothes in a chatroom.