On a fateful day in November, only 400 out of 3,000 students showed up for classes at San Antonio's Warren High School, after threats against the school were posted on the popular free online social network site MySpace. The warnings said two boys were planning to use guns to shoot up the school, and most of the students stayed home out of fear for their lives. Teachers and administrators were in a "high state of anxiety," says Pascual Gonzales, executive director of communications for the district, and extra police were called to the school.
Although it was a prank that got out of hand, and the involved students were arrested, the incident demonstrates the power of online social networks to link people in communities and across the world. MySpace claims more than 41 million subscribers, and is gaining 150,000 new subscribers daily.
Although the major social networks MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, LiveJournal and Xanga started as a way for college students and young adults to share interests and meet new friends, they have exploded in recent months into the hottest hangouts for students of high school age and younger. For example, I found scores of MySpace subscribers in high schools throughout the United States. Facebook also launched a high school version last year and Xanga is targeted specifically to teenagers. Even if your staff is not aware of online social networks in your district, they are likely already operating unseen among your students.
Opportunities and Challenges
In joining online social networks, individuals use templates to post profiles with personal photographs and details of their lives for everyone to see. Sites may also be embellished with graphics and sound and video clips, such as favorite songs and excerpts from movies. Subscribers can then search through millions of profiles and communicate with anyone they choose. They may also leave comments with their photos on pages, and ask individuals to link to their sites as "friends" so continuing contact is only a click away. Some networks also display icons when friends are available for instant messages, and one weekend I noticed that 35 out of 39 participants in a high school group were online at the same time.
Local bands use the networks to debut songs and share performance calendars, and huge numbers of young writers, poets, artists and photographers use their profiles for self-expression. The sites are also powerful ways for high school students to contact individuals in colleges of interest, and for school alumni to keep in touch long after they graduate. However, on the downside, some pages contain profane content that is inappropriate for children, and stalkers have used personally identifiable information to entice teens into face-to-face meetings. School administrators are therefore warning students that online activities may affect their safety, but also their academic and professional lives, since posted content may someday be read by college admissions officers and potential employers.
Addressing the Issues
The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that 87 percent of 12- to 17-year olds use the Internet, and students are flocking to online social networks by the millions, so every school district is affected. Many administrators are scrambling to come up with appropriate policies, prepare guide materials for students and parents, and in some cases, even try to block the sites. Jennifer Huntington, principal of the Newton North High School in Massachusetts says social networking is a wonderful tool, but doubts that students fully understand the dangers. Use the resources below and make sure that your district is informed.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.