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May 02, 2008

Katie Couric on Mean Girls (And Boys) Online

Juicycampus_logo The hullabaloo over Miley Cyrus has died down.  My mom said in her inimitable way that “Vanity Fair should be ashamed of itself.”   I think it’s a shame that the magazine, her parents and her managers didn’t handle it better, and there is  nothing  more  troubling and insidious  than  the premature sexualization of teen stars, and really the oversexualization of just about any woman on TV today.  But that’s for another time.

A lot of Moms I know have been thinking about the dark side of the Internet.  I’m not talking about porn sites and pedophile chat rooms, but the idea that the Internet has become a dumping ground, literally, for cruel comments, ostracization and just generally rude and uncivil behavior.  Are some of these sites playing to our basest instinct, the very worst of human nature?

I’ve always been slightly amazed at the vitriolic nature of some blog postings I’ve read, and the exchanges between those who are not “like minded” to say the least.  But now kids are heading to places where they not only unload on their friends and classmates, but unleash the most scurrilous and cruel critiques--all anonymously.

There’s an honesty box you can opt for on your Facebook page that can be a blank slate for anonymous insults from your “friends.”  Then there’s this Juicycampus.com--a website where college kids post completely anonymous gossip about classmates.  At last count it was available on about 60 campuses already, and there’s no telling how many people have been hurt by the nasty comments. You only have to think of the devastation this can have on fragile, developing psyches.  Malicious gossip and back stabbing are nothing new, but somehow when you see it up there in black and white, it’s really disturbing.

I read that a college junior from Baylor was called “the biggest slut on campus,” students at UC Irvine discussed the “most promiscuous sorority girls” at their school.  The Juicycampus website says it has guidelines about defamation, but do the unfortunate students who’ve seen their names there believe that?

Some campuses like Baylor, Pepperdine, and Loyola Marymount have seen efforts from student groups to ban Juicycampus.com, but it’s proven harder than you’d expect.  The site isn’t run by university IT departments.  Campus networks can filter out certain sites, but ultimately it doesn’t prevent people from accessing them on their own dime.

It is reassuring, though, that it’s offensive to some students.  I just recently went on college tour with my daughter Ellie, and I know she expressed real concern about the schools that have Juicycampus pages, asking me “won’t this affect the way prospective students may feel about these schools?”

The anonymous insult trend is prevalent among much younger kids, as well.  Here in NYC there’s a private school called Horace Mann, and it was the subject of a lengthy article in New York Magazine.  Students were using Facebook pages to write sexist and profane comments about women and about their teachers.  It launched a debate about whether something happening on a “personal” website is a school matter.  Or is it tantamount to reading someone’s diary?  I guess if you write your diary for 70 million people, it is.

At RateMyTeacher.com students as young as grade school can post anonymous critiques of their teachers.  Imagine being the teacher who reads that she or he is the “the worst ever” or “psychotic for sure,” having no clue who wrote it and no real defense against the accusations.

These kinds of attacks are the 2.0 version of seeing your name on a bathroom wall, only they can’t always be Windexed away.  This stuff online stays there, pretty much forever.

This is the first generation of kids to really have to confront the issue of cyberfootprints and online reputation defense.  It’s scary, and I don’t envy them.

Is the genie out of the bottle?  Are parents today simply oblivious to the anonymous hate speech that’s so pervasive?   I think our jobs as Moms have gotten a lot harder, and it seems to me we need to have some kind of concerted effort, along with our schools and other leaders, to communicate to our kids that freedom of expression is a protected right in this country--but are we expressing ourselves too freely?

Civil discourse and good manners have already taken a beating.  Are we now reaching a whole new ugly level because, under the cloak of anonymity, good manners are lost in cyberspace?

Original New York City Moms Blog Post

Image1777328g_2 Katie Couric is the anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, and the mother of Ellie, 16, and Carrie, 12.

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Well played Katie Couric. Today Couric ventures outside CBS.com into the momosphere. In a guest post on NYC Moms Blog, Couric writes about the dark [Read More]

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