YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Sandy Banks

Teen Incivility Is Deeper Than Cyberspace

March 06, 2001|Sandy Banks

A school principal called it bathroom gossip that will never go away. A mother considered it enough of a threat to her daughter's safety that she hired a lawyer to try to shut it down. A therapist says it's pushed her teenage client to the brink of suicide.

It's a school-rumor Web site that spent three weeks as the talk of a handful of San Fernando Valley high school campuses until it was shut down on Friday by its Internet host.

Billed a "discussion board" it was a place for users to anonymously post rumors about their classmates, schools, teachers, friends . . . the kind of crude comments that used to be whispered at lunch tables or scrawled on bathroom walls.

There was what I'd considered the typical teenage fare: Sally doesn't wear underwear. Mildred stuffs her bra. Carol's boyfriend is cheating on her with Jane. Michael's got a small you-know-what. (Sanitized versions with names changed, of course.)

And then there were comments so ugly and vile that it was hard to imagine that they were the work of kids barely entering their teens.


I wish I could share samples of the postings, but there is little that is not so profane, vulgar or offensive that it could be printed here.

More than a dozen schools were represented, their rumors listed under headings the kids created, with titles like "Sluts and Pimps at Chatsworth," "Conceided HOES at Granada" and "Weirdest People at Your School."

I was stunned by what I read--the language, the threats, the slurs, the sexual acts described in graphic detail--though I suppose I shouldn't have been. It's not news that our kids are having sex, using drugs, fighting over each other's boyfriends. What was more disturbing was the level of hostility they displayed.

It does not take much to imagine the Web site as a sort of cyber version of armed kids storming their high school campuses, venting their anger with sprayed bullets, rather than hateful speech.

The tone of the site even appalled some of its teenage visitors, but their objections were met with more vitriol.

"This is a plea to whoever runs this site," one teenager wrote. "Please shut this site down. . . . Someone mentioned has just recently attempted to take their life because of the stuff written about them on the board here."

Among the responses:

"I hope that guy who tried to kill himself was u. It if was, you should try again til you succeed."

"If someone can't take a f------ online rumor, then they deserve to die."




Perhaps this represents just a fringe adolescent element--as one girl told me, "a handful of nerds with nothing better to do than sit in front of a computer and bash the popular kids."

But talks with teenagers in the week since I first saw the site made me wonder. "It's not like it's a rare thing or a few people," said one senior at an exclusive Catholic school. "And it's not that they're just letting it out online. You walk down the hall, and you hear this same kind of thing. People are just downright mean."

In fact, the site was visited more than 67,000 times in the two weeks before it was shut, and many of the hundreds of kids who logged on seemed only too eager for the chance to help destroy someone.

Debbie Leidner, an assistant superintendent with the Los Angeles Unified School District, said kids are only carrying baggage we've handed them into cyberspace. "The computer, that's their back fence," she said.

"Aren't we really talking about a civility issue that's a societal problem?" asked Leidner. Our kids are just reflecting what they're seeing. Parents who gossip about the neighbors, flip off other drivers who make them mad, berate the Starbucks guy because he didn't make the latte quite right.

Is our alarm misplaced? I asked her. "No, because people are being hurt. But is it fair to say that kids are just evil and mean? No. I think our kids are better than ever. We're seeing more and more kids volunteer for community service, go out and work in child-care centers and retirement homes. But I think we've given them some very bad role models. . . . As a society, we need to go back to a more civil time."


It's easy to simplistically assign blame to one element or another in the complicated cultural stew that produced

School officials tut-tut the lack of parental oversight and called for closer supervision of kids' computer time. Never mind that many of these kids were logging onto the site and posting rumors from computers in their school libraries.

Others blame Eminem, violent movies, MTV--as if listening and watching vulgarity and violence somehow explain kids' lack of basic decency.

Others blame the Internet, with its seductive promise of anonymity, the power it can covey to a cowardly kid.

The harder thing to know is what to do.

Parents were confounded. Some oddly grateful for the opportunity to talk to their teenage children about sex and drugs and guns . . . stuff too frightening to face unbidden. Others found that conversation came too late.

"I had one mother call me," a principal said. "She was horrified to find her daughter listed on the site." She was even more horrified when her daughter wasn't bothered at all but found it "amusing," the principal said.

Teachers and principals admit they were caught off guard, intimidated by a medium they don't quite understand, torn between ignoring the site, hoping it would go away, and condemning it, thus ensuring its popularity. "We don't know what to do," one principal admitted. "We've never had anything like this, with First Amendment issues, concerns about mental health and privacy. We don't know what to tell the kids."

Los Angeles Times Articles