Friday, March 28, 2008

Kids and the Internet

There is a lot of controversy surrounding Internet use among children. A few years back,
a good friend of mine posted a picture of her eleven year old son on her website. Outrage ensued. Parents everywhere told horror stories about pedophiles using sophisticated tracking equipment to detect IP addresses. They would track her child down, and...
I listened, and I worried. My daughter was only six at the time, but she had 10 and 12 year old brothers who were fascinated by computers. Teachers sent home warning notices regarding Internet use. I believed what I was told.
Well, I don't anymore. The Intenet is a means of communication, and there isn't any way to keep children from using the Internet. Should they be supervised? Of course. Should they be worried about being hunted down? Not at all. Here are the findings of David Pogue from the NY Times:

How Dangerous Is the Internet for Children?
A few years ago, a parenting magazine asked me to write an article about the dangers that children face when they go online. As it turns out, I was the wrong author for the article they had in mind.
The editor was deeply disappointed by my initial draft. Its chief message was this: “Sure, there are dangers. But they’re hugely overhyped by the media. The tales of pedophiles luring children out of their homes are like plane crashes: they happen extremely rarely, but when they do, they make headlines everywhere. The Internet is just another facet of socialization for the new generation; as always, common sense and a level head are the best safeguards.”
My editor, however, was looking for something more sensational. He asked, for example, if I could dig up an opening anecdote about, say, an eight-year-old getting killed by a chat-room stalker. But after days of research—and yes, I actually looked at the Google results past the first page—I could not find a single example of a preteen getting abducted and murdered by an Internet predator.
So the editor sent me the contact information for several parents of young children with Internet horror stories, and suggested that I interview them. One woman, for example, told me that she became hysterical when her eight-year-old stumbled onto a pornographic photo. She told me that she literally dove for the computer, crashing over a chair, yanking out the power cord and then rushing her daughter outside.
You know what? I think that far more damage was done to that child by her mother’s reaction than by the dirty picture.

See, almost the same thing happened at our house. When my son was 7 years old, he was Googling “The Incredibles” on the computer that we keep in the kitchen. At some point, he pulled up a doctored picture of the Incredibles family, showing them naked.
“What…on… earth?” he said in surprise.
I walked over, saw what was going on, and closed the window. “Yeah, I know,” I told him. “Some people like pictures of naked people. The Internet is full of all kinds of things.” And life went on.
My thinking was this: a seven-year-old is so far from puberty, naked pictures don’t yet have any of the baggage that we adults associate with them. Sex has no meaning yet; the concept produces no emotional charge one way or another.
Today, not only is my son utterly unscarred by the event, I’m quite sure he has no memory of it whatsoever.
Now, I realize that not everybody shares my nonchalance. And again, it’s not hard to find scattered anecdotes about terrible things that happen online.
But if you live in terror of what the Internet will do to your children, I encourage you to watch this excellent hour long PBS “Frontline” documentary. (I learned about it in a recent column by Times media critic Virginia Heffernan).
It’s free, and it’s online in its entirety. The show surveys the current kids-online situation—thoroughly, open-mindedly and frankly.
The show carefully examines each danger of the Net. And as presented by the show, the sexual-predator thing is way, way overblown, just as I had suspected. Several interesting interview transcripts accompany the show online; the one with producer Rachel Dretzin goes like this:
“One of the biggest surprises in making this film was the discovery that the threat of online predators is misunderstood and overblown. The data shows that giving out personal information over the Internet makes absolutely no difference when it comes to a child’s vulnerability to predation.” (That one blew my mind, because every single Internet-safety Web site and pamphlet hammers repeatedly on this point: never, ever give out your personal information online.)
In any case, watch the show. You’ll learn that some fears are overplayed, others are underplayed, and above all, that the Internet plays a huge part in adolescence now. Pining for simpler times is a waste of time; like it or not, this particular genie is out of the bottle.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Writing for Boys:

I found this to be true when I was teaching; I would love to read about a study which explains why my husband and I can't agree on a movie...wonder if the findings between the genders would be similar?

From the Teacher/Librarian Journal:

From After years of neglect, there is now a growing body of research to explain the reading and non-reading habits of boys. In the first chapter of Michael Smith's indispensable book Reading don't fix no Chevys is a quick review of a dozen major findings of that research related to boys (not just teens) and reading:

Boys don’t comprehend narrative (fiction) as well as girls
Boys have much less interest in leisure reading than girls
Boys are more inclined to read informational texts
Boys are more inclined to read magazine and newspaper articles
Boys are more inclined to read comic books and graphic novels than girls
Boys like to read about hobbies, sports and things they do or want to do
Boys tend to enjoy escapism and humor
Some groups of boys are passionate about science fiction or fantasy
The appearance of a book and cover is important to boys
Few boys entering school call themselves “non-readers” but by high school, over half do
Boys tend to think they are bad readers
If reading is perceived as feminized, then boys will go to great lengths to avoid it
Thus, the boy at the booktalking session saying he doesn't read might simply be saying that he doesn't read what libraries offer.

Most young adult sections in public libraries are filled with fiction; there is little recreational non-fiction. If there is recreational nonfiction, it is more than likely to be self-help, health-related, about teen issues or pop star biographies. There might be magazines, but the chances are they are aimed more at girls than boys. Comic books are more than likely not to be there, and graphic novels, if collected, are not featured. There probably isn't a newspaper lying around. Boys who venture into the YA area will find shelves so jammed that they won't have a catchy cover catch their interest and it is doubtful if anything but new books (which again, no doubt are all fiction) will be on display. Given these choices, the teen boy, especially a younger one, will opt for something safe like a series (boys like brands) only to get the message from a teacher, parent or maybe even a librarian that the book is okay because "at least they are reading something.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A YA View on a YA Writer Mom

When copies of my books arrived from Flux, my two boys ran out to the door. Sounds lovely, doesn't it? Only Philip was hoping for a new amp in time for his birthday party and Christopher was hoping for a new video game console, or maybe just a box of cash.
"It's books?" they asked, their voices sinking.
"But they're my books. Copies of what I wrote."
(Worried glances) "Do we have to read it?"
"Only if you want to continue eating."
They politely told me they liked the cover, then began backing away from me slowly.
"I was thinking of giving them out as party favors," I said to Philip.
"Mom. No. Just pizza and soda and cake."
"I could give a writers workshop in your English class," I suggested to Christopher.
"No. Mom, don't. And Mom -"
"Did you like say anything about me or Philip in this book? Anything personal?"
"It's about a girl. She's a little crazy, and she sets fires. I think that's pretty removed from you
"But nothing about us, right?" Christopher asked.
"Just about some of your funnier potty training episodes." (I couldn't resist).
Silence. Worry.
"No. I'm kidding. It has nothing to do with you. You're mentioned in the dedication and nowhere else."
They grinned. "You know what's the best thing about you writing YA, Mom?" Philip asked.
The best thing. I waited, believing for a magical second that my boys had escaped the complete self obsession of adolescence. Here was proof.
"What's the best thing?"
"You never changed your name so we have different last names. So even if you did write anything about us, no one would figure out it was us. We're actually safe."

Friday, March 14, 2008

Contraband - Part II

So what happened to the student who filmed the teacher speaking inappropriately to the class?
He DID post the video to youtube, sent the link to the emails of several building administrators, and got suspended.
The teacher? Just began an "early retirement" --

Monday, March 10, 2008

The New Contraband - Part I

Cell phones are banned by most schools, at least for the student population. Their reasoning is that students will not focus on their work if they are carrying a cell phone. They are probably right about that. And since there is nothing else to distract high school and middle school kids from memorizing the chief exports of Guatemala, I'm sure the cell phone banish is, like so many educational policies, highly effective.

The thing is, almost every kid has a cell phone. And if they don't have a cell phone, they want one. And the ban on cell phones has only served to cast them into the Hidden Zone, like the cigarette/pot contraband of yesteryear. (Ok, my year)

On the days when I pick my kids up from school, I like to count the steps their friends take before pulling their cells out. They like to glare at any adult around while holding the phone to their ear. The other day, while picking my son up early, a student I knew did just this. She walked importantly around the courtyard where the buses were gathering, frowning into the phone like a diplomat getting bad news about the war.

Since it was one of the few times I have stood in that courtyard without any other students around, I decided to ask Sarah a question that has been haunting me. "Hey," I said quietly,
"how are you, Sarah?"
She nodded, then clicked off the phone.
"Listen, can you answer a question?"
She shrugged. "Maybe."
"Who do you guys talk to as soon as you leave the building? Aren't all your friends here?"
"Yeah. I was just talking to my mom. I asked her to wash my red pants." Sarah rolled her eyes.
"And she didn't?" I asked, remembering the frown.
"Nope. She forgot."
"Is that who you usually call?"
"Yeah. None of my friends can answer now. All their phones are in their lockers."
"Right," I agreed.
My son walked toward us, his eyes riveted to his phone, his thumb moving frantically across the keypad. As I watched him check phantom messages, it occurred to me that cell phones had replaced cigarettes not only as locker contraband, but as social behavior. I was about to tell him this when Christopher told me how a student, a friend of his, had just used his camera phone to
film a teacher speaking inappropiately during a class.
"What's he going to do with the film?" I asked.
"Maybe post it onto youtube."
At that moment, I began to rethink my position on why the school administration really had banned phones from the building.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Where Does YA Fail? Interview with a Reluctant Teen Reader

When my boys were small, we attended three weekly story times at libraries, read at least five picture books each day, and produced endless pages of dialog with our sock puppets. I had not read the research on creating literate kids; I had memorized it. They were the only kids in our neighborhood who did not spend rainy afternoons in front of the tv.
Fast forward ten years: with one teenager, and one on the brink of becoming a teen, my boys have evolved into reluctant readers. I am hoping this is one of those stages kids go through and grow out of. Knowing they are tired of me talking about reading (all right, nagging), I sat down with one of their friends, and for the small price of a pizza, he agreed to talk to me about why he no longer reads for pleasure.

Ben (not his real name) is sixteen, a B+ student who likes video games, skateboarding, and swimming. Ben hopes to become a video animator. He used to read on a regular basis, but stopped around age 13.

Me: So, Ben, what kind of books did you read?

Ben: Mostly adventure and history books. Historical fiction and biography were my favorites. I liked non fiction because it's automatically realistic.

Me: How often did you read? And when did you stop?

Ben: Every day. At least for a couple of hours. Then in eighth grade, I just didn't like reading any more. Books seemed too slow. It just takes too long to see what happens. I like video games.
You can change what happens in video games, but you can't in books.

Me: Do you know what YA books are?

Ben: Yup. Our English teacher had us do a report on one last year in ninth grade.

Me: In general, what do you think of books that are written with teens in mind?

Ben: (laughs) Most authors aren't in high school. They write too much about relationships, and that's really boring. A lot of the plots are like a Disney movie - like the bad kid gets in trouble, the good kid gets rewarded. It doesn't work that way in school. Not usually. And they don't get what the real problems are.

Me: What do you think they are?

Ben: Drugs are still a really big problem, and they don't let you read those kind of books in our school. There's always one clique in school that everyone, even the teachers, look at and know they do drugs. But there are a lot of other kids in school that are into drugs that no one suspects because they're not in that one clique. There are drug parties every weekend in houses. At least I hear there are. And a lot of the kids take their parents prescription drugs, so it's not like how the authors show it. It's not like you have to go out to some strange neighborhood and buy drugs. But that's definitely a big problem.

Me: Do you think the authors get down how teens live?

Ben: I'm not all teens, but I can say here at least, a lot of kids talk a lot through texting or on myspace.

Me: (eagerly) So if a YA author were to write a book that's a realistic portrayal of high school, you would want to read it?

Ben: Uh. Probably not. I only read what I'm assigned.

Me: Ok, last question. If you could talk to an audience of YA authors, what advice would you give them so that you might, maybe, possibly would pick up their book and read it?

Ben: I guess you need to have a good conflict. Like something that makes you want to see what happens. And I like when I have to think about the words a little. I don't like when they describe something to death, or use way too many words to say a simple thing. Last year we read The Pearl, and it was like that. A big, long book that should have been a short story. Probably the most important thing is that stuff keeps happening and you can't tell what will happen. That would be a good book.