Internet Blues (January-February, 2005)

Dear Bob, We had an upsetting situation occur between two campers during the off season that we’d like to get your thoughts about. One of our twelve year-old male campers began receiving threatening e-mails from a screen name I can’t share with you, but which was itself a menacing moniker. The camper, whom I shall call Tom (not his real name), was being “watched” or stalked on-line, and in an IM from the stalker, a threat was made on his life. The frightened boy told his parents, who notified the police. The FBI got involved and the screen name was traced to one of Tom’s cabin-mates, whom I shall call “Jim” (also not his real name) in another state. Ironically, the boys are close friends at camp, and when confronted by the police and FBI, Jim, genuinely baffled that he had breached a line and created such a stir, was truly contrite. My purpose in writing you has to do with the fact that Tom’s parents are now refusing to send him back to camp, even though he has been with us for several years and loves the place. Jim apologized, on the phone and in writing, to both Tom and his parents. We feel that Jim, who is an otherwise helpful, outgoing, sincere camper, and who now knows that his “joke” was a terrible mistake, is only twelve and should be allowed to learn from this. We are allowing him come back to camp, as he is much chastened by his prank. Tom’s parents, on the other hand, absolutely refuse to send him back if Jim is there, even though I suspect Tom wants to return. His parents don’t seem to want to budge. What can we do? Isn’t it possible that a twelve year-old boy can make a mistake and learn from it? E-dismayed
Dear E,
Your situation is the third of its kind I have heard about in the last few months. Yes, children who are otherwise essentially “good kids” are entirely capable of making huge errors in judgment, just as Jim did. The nature of IM-ing and e-mails exacerbates this tendency. Children, after all, often experience the Internet as a kind of pretend parallel world, separate from the kind of reality they come into contact with in the direct, personal interactions they have with friends. The virtual world simply doesn’t have benefit of the non-verbal clues of communication the real world offers—facial expressions and tone of voice, for example. As a result, many kids will say things in an IM or e-mail or write personal things in a blog that they wouldn’t dare say to another kid in person. Add to this the fact that early adolescent children are ego-centric, meaning they find it hard to see the world from any vantage point other than their own, and it is easy to see why Jim thought his “joke” was harmless and might be truly baffled when confronted with the consequences of what he had done.
All of this having been said, it does not excuse the seriousness of what Jim did, and he, as other children, will only learn and widen his perspective when he is presented with the consequences of his actions. Having him apologize to Tom and his parents over the phone and in writing is a good first step. Limiting his on-line privileges for some time is an additional natural consequence that would reinforce the seriousness of his actions. I also think it would be helpful to Jim, Tom and other boys at camp for Jim and Tom, with adult guidance and supervision, to discuss the entire incident with their cabin mates at camp. In this way Jim must own up to his actions with his peers and make his amends to the community (his cabin mates) that he and Tom belong to, while helping instruct the other boys about the pitfalls of pranks on the Internet. Whether Tom’s parents would accept this as an additional assurance of Jim’s “reform” is not clear, but it wouldn’t hurt to offer.
Aside from these steps, it is not clear what Tom’s parents are objecting to. Do they think Jim “got off” too easy and that he should not be able to come back to camp? If that is the case, show them my column. Children make mistakes and the best place for them to make amends is at the “scene of the crime.” In this case, the next best place to cyberspace is camp, since it is where Tom and Jim experience their relationship, and therefore it is the place where they need to repair it. If Jim stays home, Tom may be more wounded by his friend’s absence than by the original misdeed.

Dear Bob, I happened to catch your appearance on the Family portion of the “Today Show” last July on NBC (July 7, 2004), where you and the mothers of different campers at different camps were talking about how camps are providing daily pictures and stories on the Internet to camp families. You mentioned that the Internet was a “great tool” for helping create a stronger “partnership” with parents. While I agree, I also know how many crazy calls we get from over-anxious parents who read too much into the look on their child’s face. We had one parent call us because she found her daughter in the background of a picture, walking behind some other campers, and thought her daughter must be lonely and friendless because she couldn’t see who her daughter was with. Call like these consume time and make me wonder whether the Internet hasn’t just crated a whole new thing for parents to obsess about. Too Much Micro-managing
Dear Too Much,
It is true that many camps receive calls from parents who are overly concerned about their children’s happiness at camp. Has the Internet created this monster? Hardly. It has simply become the new forum for parents who have always worried about their children. The parents who make these calls are the same parents who years ago called when they received an upsetting letter (or no letter at all) from their children. The only difference is that, with unrelenting news about child abductions, violence in schools, terrorism and bullying, parents are more nervous about their children’s safety in 2005 than they were in 1995. The Internet did not create that anxiety; it has simply become the medium through which it is expressed. Keep your eye on the positive responses you get from your photo gallery, not the negative ones.

Dear Bob, We recently learned that a former staff member of ours has been arrested in a sting operation involving the Internet. Apparently this young man contacted a 15 year-old boy on-line and arranged to meet him for sex. When he arrived he found the 15 year-old was actually an FBI agent. News of this has been on the local TV stations and in the local papers. How, if at all, should we respond to these charges? I fear that if we send a letter to parents, it may be more alarming than reassuring. Fretting in the Fronds
Dear Fretting,
I would advise you not to let your fears keep you from acting wisely. In my experience, every time a camp has contacted parents in situations such as the one you currently find yourself, parents have responded positively. Tell them you know the news has caused anxiety in many parents and reassure them about the supervision of your staff and the double coverage rule (that at your camp, children are never alone with staff members). Camp is, after all, safer than the environment at home because there are so many extra safeguards in place and so many more adults watching the children—and each other! Parents will appreciate your direct approach and the openness with which you write. In the many cases I have known about where such a letter was sent, parents were only grateful for the honesty in a world where they don’t expect it and often don’t get it.

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