Following up on its earlier article about how college students’ profiles on social networking sites are turning off prospective employers (which I discussed here), today brings a new warning from the NYT on this digital peril: Young People’s Web Postings Worry Summer Camp Directors. The opening graf seems to channel Helen Lovejoy, labeling “sites like MySpace, Facebook and Friendster” a “scourge” of summer camp directors. Add the new story to this week’s news of a lawsuit against MySpace alleging that it failed to prevent a user from sexually assaulting a child, and it looks like only a matter of time before Congress starts calling for an investigation of this whole Internet thingy. So what’s going on with the summer camps?
- Pedophiles can follow children to camp based on information in the children’s profiles. But camps aren’t secret; they’re right there in the yellow pages. They’re even labeled from the street with big signs. They advertise — indeed, they even have web sites of their own. How do social networking sites increase the actual levels of risk campers face here? The Times doesn’t say, although it clearly wants the reader infer that the Internet is a uniquely dangerous place simply crawling with predators.
- Kids are finding risqué photos that counselors have posted in their profiles. This seems like a reasonably legitimate complaint, but surely it is adequately redressable through the terms of the employment contract between the camp and the counselor. This issue is exactly the same one that the Times already wrote about in its June 11th article — did it really need to repeat itself so soon?
- The kids are using their profiles to criticize the camps and their counselors. And here, I expect, is the real motive for the crackdown: the camps are worried that bad reviews will depress attendance and revenues. The very public fretting about the “safety” issue is a smokescreen for the camps’ real (but less defensible) desire, which is to insulate themselves against criticism. One of the camps’ new tactics described in the article — “trademarking their names, logos or slogans so they can legally order others not to use them online” — seems to have everything to do with deterring criticism and nothing to do with safety, although of course it’s not a trademark violation to identify a business using that business’s own name, no matter what the NYT article implies. (Just ask Jerry Falwell whether you can use trademark law to stop other people from saying bad things about you online.)
I’m a parent; I understand the urge to protect one’s children from harm, and I’m sure than when David gets a little older I’ll worry with the best of them about sending him off to camp. But the Times article yearns for a pre-Internet idyll (free from predators and bullying) that never actually existed. What’s really newsworthy here, it seems to me, is the scapegoating of the currently popular social networking sites for a host of social ills that long predated their own existence and will endure long after people have moved on to the next online fad, whatever it turns out to be.