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REAL LIFE

Net Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

April 21, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a recent bright and fresh spring day, my daughter and three girlfriends shut themselves up in her room with provisions and their favorite pastimes: hair, makeup and flirting online.

Shrieks of gaiety floated down the hall, along with conversation bits such as "Do you have any pink eye shadow?" Occasionally one would emerge with a question of etiquette: "Can we use profound language?" What she meant was, could they use swear words to put down someone who is offending them. I suggested it might be more creative to come up with something witty instead.

The arrival of the Internet has made the technological territory that was once dominated by boys and their combat games more appealing to young girls. The reason is that the computer has become a communications and community-building medium that plays to their strengths, said Sherry Turkle, a professor of the sociology of science at MIT and author of "Life on the Screen" (Simon & Shuster, 1995).

From a parent's perspective, this is good news / bad news.

A major plus is that the Internet carries the promise of significantly changing what has been a male culture, said Turkle, a psychologist who is also the mother of a 4-year-old girl. A major minus is that there remain pockets of virtual sexual harassment where crude sexual invitations via e-mail are the equivalent of "hello."

While girls are diving into modern technology with gusto, the environment they've landed in can look a lot like a New York subway. At night.

The first night the girls, all 14, signed on, I reminded them that no one really knows who anyone else is on the Internet and that they should never reveal any personal information. "Why not?" one asked. I provided a copy of "I Trusted Him--and He Raped Me," a story of an online meeting gone awry in the March issue of YM magazine. "But she was stupid," the girls said. "Besides, she was having problems at home."

The girls insisted they just wanted to have fun. For one, the Internet is a place to be popular. For another, a place to experiment with being someone else. For a third, a place to be "profound"--without the usual consequences.

In Turkle's view, online can actually be a safe place for girls to practice handling an unwanted approach. "I don't teach girls to turn off the machine. I want them to have the practice of watching themselves type, 'What you're doing, I don't go for. I'm outta here.' Click." Telling someone to get lost 15 times in cyberspace can give girls the confidence to do it in real life, she said.

She does not advise girls to pretend to be someone else, but those who do have gained insights and new perspectives about themselves and others. Some pretend to be guys and find that they are more assertive and that they are perceived as more competent.

At some point, Turkle said, parents need to allow their children to be in this world, which means they need to give their kids pointers--such as:

* They do not owe anybody any information. Strangers do not need details about their personal lives.

* Discussion groups with a specific topic are more educational than general chat rooms and can be a way of avoiding inappropriate behavior.

* They can report inappropriate messages to the system operator.

Turkle said it is also helpful for parents to go online with their children at first so they can watch the innuendoes flying together. That way, the children will feel free to talk if something distressing happens. They will know it's not their fault.

Females reportedly still constitute less than 40% of the Internet surfers. But they are gaining ground daily in the cyberculture. Carla Sinclair of Los Angeles, author of "Net Chick: A Smart-Girl Guide to the Wired World" (Henry Holt, 1995), said hundreds of girl-oriented Web pages have opened up and can be found through www.cybergrrl.com.

Some are dismayed that many focus on shopping and beauty tips or diaries.

But the overriding point, Turkle said, is that girls are being socialized into the technology their own way. "For too long, women have felt intimidated by this.

"This technology is in all our futures. We need to be comfortable with it."

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