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A Tech-Econ Mashup with a Libertarian Flavor

Internet, Teens, and Cyber-bullying

At the risk of losing several coolness points, I’m writing in response to yesterday’s episode of Dr. Phil. The topic was cyber-bullying among teenagers, with the take-home message being that the internet has significantly changed the nature in which kids handle their disputes with each other. Videos of schoolyard fights can be found on youtube. Rumors that were once written only on bathroom stalls are broadcast across Myspace for anyone to read. And of course, we’ve all seen the poor Star Wars Kid, whose public embarrassment and ridicule led his family to file a lawsuit against his peers. Without a doubt, the internet has transported an unfortunate, occasionally tragic, yet very common part of adolescence into a public arena where insults are traded anonymously and can have potentially serious results.

I’m usually skeptical of appeals made using anecdotal evidence, but I think the examples in this case illustrate the dangers and distress kids are causing each other and themselves through the internet. One young woman on the show found her Myspace page had been hacked into by a former friend, who had changed the profile to portray the girl as a “woman of low moral character” (my words). To add insult to injury, said “friend” posted the girls private cell phone number, publicized the page, and reset the login info, leaving the girl unable to repair the damage. She reported having to change phone numbers after receiving a slew of sexually offensive phone calls from strangers. Another young man on the show had recently found a fraudulent website depicting him (using his real name and his photos) as a drug user, attempted rapist, and general lowlife. The page had been around for months before he was even aware of it, and his concern now is that the phony information will keep him out of college, should any university admissions boards ever stumble upon it.

Internet harassment was very recently publicized last year with the Megan Meier suicide. Parent and teachers’ groups are demanding laws on the books that protect “the children” and empower law enforcement officials to apprehend and punish internet harassers. Opponents blame the parents, saying it is their responsibility to undertake the (admittedly impossible) task of supervising their teenagers 24-7. And free-marketers/free-netters correctly warn that laws that police internet behavior will put us on the slippery-slope towards content regulation and free-speech violations.

So, how to balance the safety of “the children” with the freedom and anonymity of the internet? First, I think it’s important we admit something that we tend to overlook: parental controls don’t work very well for teenagers. The average parent lacks both the time and the technical know-how necessary to supervise their children’s online behavior. And a tech-savvy teen can circumvent internet-nanny software in no time. It seems that parents’ only recourse at this point is to spring for a WoW subscription, in hopes that the addictive gameplay of MMORPGs will distract their children from the rest of the internet’s offerings.

It’s also important to remember that, as a group, teenagers are probably the dumbest population segment in America. Yes, I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but it’s pretty close to the truth. Teens’ preferences are 99% based on popularity, rather than actual usefulness, form, functionality, quality, etc. This means that crappy, terrible, garbage-ridden internet applications like Myspace, once they have a critical number of other teen users, will beat out superior apps like Facebook (which has much better privacy controls, user interfaces, and design) for the coveted “teen demographic.” Moreover, teens have virtually no understanding of the concept of “three-to-five years from now” (five years ago I wholly expected to be a rock star by now), and their decisions, not to mention their emo-heavy videoblogs, often reflect this.

Having said that, online harassment carries huge costs: public humiliation and emotional distress are the most obvious, but the above examples illustrate the serious safety threats and long-run negative effects of cyber-bullying. No adolescent should have to deal with these consequences. Yes, ideally parents should be responsible for teaching their kids about internet safety and monitoring their online activity, but the reality is that most parents aren’t reasonably capable of effectively doing so.  However, constitutional rights to free speech and the mostly-unregulated nature of the internet must be protected, too. Those parties emphatically calling for legislative action clearly don’t understand or realize 1) the unintended consequences of internet regulation, and 2) the importance of constitutional protections for free speech. Are we, then, at an impasse?

How about a market solution? I can think of a few:
1. A website that allows parents to register their children and create official profiles that the parents and kids can modify. Users would be charged a small fee for the service, and access to the site would be granted to college recruiters, youth-oriented service programs, and the like.

2. Internet erasers. Actually, I believe these already exist to some extent. These firms would essentially operate like credit counselors/information sharks, googling the client’s name, contacting any websites hosting harmful information about the client, and negotiating the pages’ deletion.

3. AOL re-brands itself as family-friendly, all-ages internet. Its mostly-ISP business model could be refashioned back into the “walled garden” service that only provides certain kinds of content: webmail, educational sites, sports and finance, news, etc. (perhaps this time they should leave out chatrooms, which seem to attract pedophiles like bureaucrats to power). Sure, it’s not “real” internet, and content could be heavily monopolized by AOL and its affiliates, but I think parents would pay a pretty good price for a high level of safety. If not AOL, maybe Disney? It might fare better than Disney cellular service did.

Does anybody have any other solutions? Comments are open.

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