Friday, July 23, 2010

Why 11-year-olds shouldn't have webcams in their bedrooms

The story about 11-year-old Jessica Leonhardt of Florida (a.k.a. "Jessi Slaughter" and "Kerligirl13" online) reached a new high -- or low -- late last week when the pre-teen was taken into protective custody for a few days after being harassed when her profanity-laced YouTube video "to the haters" went viral.

Gawker has that video, as well as the rant posted later on YouTube by her father, but be warned: neither are safe for work unless you've got good headphones.

"You know what? I don't give a f---. I'm happy with my life," she says in one of the first video's tamer moments. "And if you can't realize that and stop hating, I'll pop a Glock in your mouth and make a brain slushy."

It goes on for four more minutes, during which she shows off her new lip piercing ("My mom made me take it out, 'cause I'm getting new ones"), talks about how perfect she is ("Nobody else can be this pretty with no makeup on!"), boasts about her boyfriends ("I have three. Jealousy, much?"), and urges "haters" to perform certain sexual acts and "gets AIDS and die."

The video went viral. Someone posted her real name, address, and phone number online. And then, her parents say, the threatening phone calls started.

Investigators in Florida say that no threats were made, though plenty of pranks are being played on the family and a team of police have been posted to protect the home. Jessi's mom, Dianne Leonhardt told Mom Logic this week that her daughter had been bullied in school, and kids who were jealous of her friendship with a boy who is in a band made her a target. But while it's tempting to chalk the whole situation up to cyber bullying gone wild, I think there's a more to it than that: Regardless of what's going on at school, an 11-year-old with a webcam, unrestricted internet access, and parents who aren't paying attention is an accident waiting to happen.

Eleven-year-olds shouldn't be active on social networking sites like YouTube to begin with, says Stanley Holditch, internet marketing manager for "I think the results speak for themselves," he told me. "It's not so much age dependent as it is dependent on the maturity of the child, but at 11 years old, children are not really equipped to handle the consequences of putting themselves out there in such a public way."

Jessi now insists she never made the video to begin with, and her mother says she's giving her daughter "the benefit of the doubt."

"It's been very difficult because I don't understand what's going on," her mom told Mom Logic. "I don't even know what these videos show and I don't want to view them. I am upset enough."

"The officers had said there were videos, but Jess denied making them," she said. "Then my mother-in-law called and said there were videos. But I haven't watched them. I can't be in the room 24/7. I don't know if she made these videos or not, but she says she didn't... I haven't watched the videos, and I don't want my daughter back online. I don't want to make her all upset again."

Though it's obvious the Leonhardts are concerned about their daughter, many experts and other parents are pointing out that, in this day and age, not knowing what your child is doing online -- or refusing to find out -- is irresponsible and neglectful.

"In allowing your daughter or son to have free reign on social networks, your family could be harassed, your child could be harassed, the police could get involved," Holditch says.

"I think it's parental negligence. You can't call it anything else," he adds. "If you're saying, 'I don't know how this stuff works, there's too much of this to take control,' you're just throwing up your hands as a parent and not doing what you should be doing."

“You teach your kids pool safety, but you still put a fence up around the pool,” Holditch points out. "It's really a shame that parents don't feel that they can provide the guidance that their children deserve, which is saying 'You're not ready for this yet'."

Instead of adding fuel to the fire after the fact (the father's video, in which Jessi is weeping, her father is ranting and cursing at "the haters," and her mom can be heard in the background, is being ridiculed far and wide), parents need to talk to their kids about internet use early on, Holditch says.

"This is the first time in human history when anyone, literally anyone, can access an audience of millions," he told me in an interview yesterday. "Even 10, 15 years ago, if you wanted access to an audience of tens of hundreds of thousands, you had to go through a really rigorous set of steps.... It took years of experience, and years of experience on how to communicate, how to get a message across. Now, any child can post a message similar to the one that she did and have millions of people viewing it. In Web 2.0, we have removed all of the checks that existed for people getting an audience that big."

“This isn’t just new to kids, it’s new to human society, period," he added. "I think there are a lot of adults who wouldn’t be well equipped to handle it, let alone a child."

Parents shouldn't be afraid to restrict their children's access to the internet, either. "Be frank with them, be real with them," Holditch says. "There’s absolutely no reason parents should feel afraid or bad about using technological tools that are available and made for this exact purpose -- to augment the parenting rules that they themselves have set up."

"This child didn’t do anything horribly wrong," he adds. In terms of feeling paranoid, self-conscious, and angry at the bullies, and in terms of being boastful and arrogant in the video, "this child acted like an 11-year-old girl."

I've also written about this issue over at In the Parenthood today; check out the comments over there, or start a discussion right here at Write. Edit. Repeat.

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