“It’s like Gossip Girl, Mom.”

My daughter’s school administration called for an assembly this week, because of this “Formspring” thing that has been causing such anguish for dozens of students and consternation on the part of school authorities.

Formspring is a networking site, the newest social media platform keeping kids glued to their computers and mobile phones. On Formspring, an account user invites readers to “ask me anything”. Participants in this real time press conference then type in questions and can choose to leave their own usernames, or remain anonymous.

Launched just last November, Formspring appeared on the microblogging site Tumblr as a way for bloggers to answer questions from readers. Naturally the feature went crazy viral, spiking to 50 million unique visitors last month.

Given teens’ rather unsettling willingness to talk about themselves, Formspring’s popularity comes as no surprise to me. It’s a brilliant and highly addictive combination of Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Participating in a Formspring session can make anyone feel like a celebrity doing a Q and A.

Yet I have seen highly engaging conversations on the Formspring accounts of responsible, mature users: from the very erudite (discussions of books being read; existentialist debates) to typical morning-after chats about the latest episode of Fringe.

Our Very Own Gossip Girl

However, in the scenario being played out in this particular school, students have been posting opinions disguised as questions. Some may appear innocuous enough (“guy in my English class: hot or not?”). But when kids can hide behind anonymity, the statements are attacks: direct, hurtful, malicious; and yes, names are named.

School officials are at a quandary as to how to ferret out the abusive posters, but in the meantime, guidelines have been issued for reaching out to the victims of this treacherous new form of gossip. Like my daughter put it, “It’s like we have our very own Gossip Girl.”

My daughter was at one of the assemblies held simultaneously across her private high school. A graduating senior this year, she’s a digital native who has moderated online discussions and participated in various online communities since she was about 12. She was an active participant, eager to share possible solutions.

What surprised me was how little administration seemed to understand about how Formspring – and other networking sites – worked. And how stopping the abuse will take more than just “shutting down the site”. The perps simply set up another account – like ninjas disappearing into the mist, then resurfacing right behind you.

I’m no educator or psychologist. I just happen to really like technology. And I like keeping up with what teens are up to – it was part of my job as a journalist and music-and-media practitioner. But I’m a mom too; and thankfully my teenagers think it’s cool that I know what’s what. By listening to what they listen to (we swap playlists on our iPods) we are often hanging out in the same places; their world is not alien, unexplored territory to me.

Sandbox Mentality

Kids are blindingly fast in identifying what’s cool and the most tech-savvy amongst them are also very early adapters. What if school administrators weren’t so late to the networking site game, the way corporations belatedly accepted Twitter and Facebook as marketing tools? I make no generalizations here, but maybe authority figures in our kids’ lives need to be thinking more like Millennials – don’t come late to the party (or worse, not get invited at all). Maybe host a party once in a while.

Colleges and universities have already come onboard the Twitter bandwagon, I know. So here’s an idea: what if high schools found Formspring before the bullies did? What if some cool English teacher hopped on the Formspring bullet train as a teaching tool (“ask me anything….about Macbeth”). Or what if the guidance counselors had a Formspring account so students could anonymously “ask anything”? As a bonus, said guidance counselors would be able to monitor or at least shadow (in a benevolent, Jedi kind of way of course; not like stalk students) every kid at school with an account?

The real-life community that is my kid’s school is generally a safe environment; but kids are in their virtual sandboxes all day long. Maybe more of us should get in there with them – sometimes playing alongside, but mostly, keeping a watchful eye so they learn to play nice.

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Filed under Living on the fringe, Teens

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