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Teens in cyberspace: The new social frontier

Although historians date the generation gap back to ancient Greece, at no time has there been such wide a difference in how the youths and adults communicate among themselves.

“Most of us have done our social networking face-to-face,” according to Pat Phair, an English teacher at Waupaca High School. “That isn’t the way the world is today.”

Phair served as the moderator at a panel discussion on teens and cyberspace hosted Saturday, Feb. 25, at Waupaca High School by Winchester Academy.

Two WHS students, Sawyer Olson and Anna Abrams, joined counselor Jeff Dolski, computer science instructor Mark Polebitski and attorney Tom Johnson for a presentation on how Facebook, texting and Twitter affect the way young people interact with each other.

“One of the main positives of Facebook is that you can keep in touch with so many people,” Olson said. Among the negatives, he noted, is that communicating through Facebook was indirect and often impersonal.

“It’s a lot easier to say things to people that you wouldn’t say to their face,” Abrams said.

Facebook is also changing the definition of what it means to be a friend.

Olson said about 300 people have identified themselves as friends on his Facebook page.

“I don’t really have 300 friends, I have about 10 friends,” Olson said.

He noted having a large number of Facebook friends can create a mob mentality.

Prior to Facebook and Twitter accounts, personal conflicts seldom spread beyond a small group of people because gossip was usually spread by word of mouth. Now, an angry teen can post a disparaging comment about another teen on Facebook. The comment quickly spreads to hundreds of friends, who then each share the comment on their Facebook pages.

Johnson said the law is currently focusing on two categories of digital communications. What individuals post about themselves and what they post about other people.

“In the law, one of the most cherished concepts is the right to privacy,” Johnson said. “This age has absolutely no concept of privacy.”

He said the photos that teens post of themselves drinking beer or smoking pot at a party can be used against them in court as incriminating evidence.

Johnson also stressed that teens should consider how such photos or comments will be viewed by college admissions or potential employers.

He said digital communication is changing how youths relate to each other.

“Everything is accelerated,” Johnson said, describing a record of text messages in which one of the participants said, “I love you,” to a stranger 18 exchanges into the conversation.

“There’s a loss of intimacy,” Johnson said. “It’s dangerous and superficial.”

More than any other panel member, Dolski stressed the negative aspects of Facebook.

“I have found no positives with Facebook in the day-to-day runnings of education,” Dolski said. “There’s not a day that goes by that this school is not reacting to a problem.”

He pointed to the ability to create false identities over the Internet.

“Students are now creating two Facebook pages,” Dolski said, “One that their parents are aware of and one that’s secret.”

He described a Facebook page created by a 15-year-old student who indicated on her Facebook page that she was 21 years old. She was later targeted by a sexual predator.

Among the consequences of digital communications is that youths are less likely to speak directly with each other.

Abrams described how she was sitting in the high school commons texting one day. She looked up from her phone and saw that every single student at her table was texting and none of them were talking to each other. She said one day she was texting with a friend and suddenly realized that friend was sitting at a nearby table in the commons.

Dolski said the lack of face-to-face communication among contemporary youth has led to many needing remedial help as they prepare for college or job interviews.

“We’ll need to role play just so the student can make a phone call to an admissions counselor,” Dolski said. “We have to teach them normal speech.”

As one solution, Dolski said families could set rules that limit the amount of time both parents and children spend in front of a screen Mondays through Fridays while at home.

Polebitski addressed many of the positive aspects of Facebook.

He has designed websites for nonprofit groups in Waupaca. He said the websites are often static, only updated every few months. Facebook pages, on the other hand, are simple to use and updated on a daily or weekly basis.

Joe Janssen, a social studies teacher who attended the Winchester Academy presentation, also pointed to the benefits of Facebook.

Facebook allowed Janssen to be in contact with former colleagues and students that he had not seen for 20 years.

After the discussion moved from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube, Polebitski concluded, “Ten years from now, probably none of this will exist as it does now.”

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