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DearDiary.com: Teens Go Online to Post Innermost Thoughts--Anonymously

July 01, 2001|LAURA SESSIONS STEPP | WASHINGTON POST

When Eleanore Tebbetts, 16, logs on to her computer to write in her online diary, she joins generations of teenagers who have consoled themselves by filling up the blank pages of a journal.

But rather than lock away her observations or stick them under the mattress when she's finished, Eleanore sends her innermost thoughts to http://www.diaryland.com, where anyone can read them.

Her dad doesn't get it.

"Why would anyone post his diary online?" Terrell Tebbetts asked her. "Isn't the point of diaries that no one reads them?"

No, the point for teens like Eleanore is that people do. Online diaries are rapidly becoming another way that teenagers talk among themselves about themselves. More permanent than instant messages and more accessible than chat rooms, these diaries give them a forum for expression that is anonymous in origin (using screen names only) and international in audience.

Computer buffs have posted Web logs on home pages for years. Ordinary mortals had no such opportunity until about three years ago, when several entrepreneurs independently decided to design community sites where users could start a diary with minimal effort and no money.

The programmers' efforts paid off particularly among teenagers, says Bruce Ableson, founder of the Open Diary (http://www.opendiary.com). About 500,000 users are registered on his site, Ableson says, half of them ages 13 to 20. Eleanore's host, DiaryLand (http://www.diaryland.com), has about 175,000 registered users, two out of three in their teens, according to founder Andrew Smales.

As indicated by recent books such as "Real Boys' Voices," "Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write About Their Search for Self" and "Teen Ink: Our Voices, Our Visions," teenagers are finding more and more venues in which they can ramble about their day, lament a lost love or try their hand at poetry. Online diaries offer them two things more: a virtually uncensored environment and interactivity.

Both Ableson and Smales say they censor only for slander, racist remarks and harassment, often at the request of readers. Anything else is fair game.

In such an atmosphere, young diarists feel released to do what teenagers need to do: try out different identities, explore conflicting ideas or simply spill their guts.

"Kids are so afraid of being judged," says Erin Gruwell, this year's California Teacher of the Year. "When they feel free to write, something beautiful can happen on a piece of paper or a computer screen."

Gruwell knows whereof she speaks: She taught 150 at-risk students in Long Beach to write diaries--anonymously--and collected them into a best-selling book, "The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them" (Doubleday).

On Open Diary, one young man detailed over several months how his stepfather was abusing him and the steps he was taking to correct the situation. Sue Palmer, a Detroit-area senior, told members of Open Diary that she was afraid she was pregnant. Gary Dragon, a Tampa, Fla., high school graduate, wrote on DiaryLand that he was called names before being beaten up outside a nightclub.

Gary also wrote last week about searching for his father on the Internet.

"I wrote a letter expressing how much I miss him even though I never knew him. I told him too many nights had been spent speculating who he was and what he did for a living, if he enjoyed music, if he cried for his sons as his sons cried for him."

Gary sent the letter to six men whose names he found on the Internet. "I gave my physical description and phone number and told them that if they weren't my father to disregard the letter and to hug their children if they had any."

Of course, some diary submissions are embellished, even made up, Gary suspects. And of course, online diaries should not be construed to be representative of teenagers' moods. Many are written late at night during a particularly trying time, alone.

"If you're happy, you're not going to sit in front of a computer. You're going to go out and do something," Gary says.

But those who are bored because their softball game was canceled or who feel like slitting their wrists because of a bad breakup find comfort in people who don't know enough about them to ask probing questions or to criticize.

Sometimes, their entries elicit sarcastic responses, but more often, it's sympathy, even advice. "Wow, you're noble," a reader will say, or "Don't scare me like that. If you do become pregnant I know there is a pill that terminates the pregnancy.... "

Advice-givers can be much older than those they advise; until recently, according to Ableson, an 85-year-old man read and responded to teens' entries on Open Diary.

Like many young diarists, Eleanore started writing online to keep an out-of-town friend updated on her life.

But she soon discovered the joy of anonymity. What she can safely tell friends in her small Arkansas town is limited, she says, "but it can't hurt to tell my diary friends really private stuff because they have no clue who I am. I like to know someone is interested in what I go through."

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