Teenage Girls in Cyberspace

Teenage Girls in Cyberspace

Girls need special guidance to avoid online pitfalls.

Perhaps it is because I taught in an era when computer courses and technology careers were almost exclusively male bastions, or because most of the participants in my Internet staff development programs are female, but I am always encouraged to meet and work with district technology coordinators who are women. These professionals include Dianne Martin of Mountain Home Public Schools in Arkansas, Barbara St. Onge of Torrington Public Schools in Connecticut, Leslie Flanders of the Scott County Schools in Kentucky, and Joan Peebles of the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin.

Their rise-through-the-ranks leadership in traditional male-dominated school environments and accomplishments on behalf of their districts inspire me, but more important, their stories are powerful motivators for teenage girls to develop similar expertise and consider technology-related careers.

THE MOST WIRED GENERATION EVER

Electronic technologies-including notebook computers, personal digital assistants, cellular phones, portable multimedia players, and electronic books-are transforming education and every area of society. All these devices link through the Web. This student generation therefore has power unlike any other, with instant access to worldwide expertise, multi-age online communities, and information as useful as the content available to any adult. The Web shifts education from teaching to learning, from single instructional paths to multiple individualized sequences, and from student acquisition of content to the development of online research skills.

In the past there have been attempts to develop "separate but unequal" technology experiences for girls, such as watered-down classes and learning games without the violence and overt competition that appeal to boys. In that tradition there are now Web sites targeted to girls, including A Girl's World (www.agirlsworld.com), Girl's Place (www.girlsplace.com), Girl Tech (www.girltech.com), and Planet Girl (www.planetgirl.com). However, research suggests that teenage girls are now using the power of the Web on their own to travel the information highway-with good and bad results.

UPSIDES AND DOWNSIDES

For example, a recently released study on the Internet experiences of girls aged 13-18 conducted by the Girl Scout Research Institute (www.girlscouts.org/news/net_effect.html) found that more than 58 percent of the teens say they are the savviest computer users in their homes. And even though three of four girls say their parents set rules about online use-such as "don't give out personal information" and "don't talk to strangers"-most felt confident to circumvent those rules.

More than 86 percent of the respondents indicate that they chat online secretly, 57 percent say they can read their parents e-mail, 54 percent carry on "cyber love-affairs," and 18 percent say they can even hack into school computers. In addition, 30 percent of the girls report being sexually harassed online, though only 7 percent tell their parents for fear of being "unplugged."

Addressing issues

My high school daughter says that dealing with sexual harassment has unfortunately become part of online life, and she knows how to trash inappropriate messages, stop unwanted come-ons and escape from objectionable sites if she is "mouse-napped." However younger students are particularly vulnerable since they do not have the knowledge or skills to keep themselves safe. Although girls are using the Internet increasingly in and out of school, we cannot assume that problems we do not hear about are not happening. They are.

The start of a new school year is a good time to review acceptable-use policies, discuss openly online behaviors and uncomfortable situations, equip students with defensive techniques-such as recognizing pop-up "you have won" scams-and help parents provide guidance (see, for example, www.girlscouts.org/about/ResearchInstitute/tips_parents.html).

Odvard Egil Dyrli, dyrli@uconn.edu, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.


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