On the Web, 'Dear Diary' Becomes 'Dear World'

The four O'Connor children, including Jeremy, front, Ren and Colton, all have online journals. With them are mom Karen and dad Terry.
The four O'Connor children, including Jeremy, front, Ren and Colton, all have online journals. With them are mom Karen and dad Terry. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Emily Butler used to keep a pen-and-paper diary. But after her mother found it, the Arlington teenager started pouring out her feelings online.

"When there were days when I just needed to rant, it felt good," said Butler, 16, a sophomore at Yorktown High School in Arlington who started a blog on the site Xanga a couple of years ago. "I'd come home after school, and I'd spend, like, an hour typing in everything I did all day."

Butler added: "Once I discovered, like, posting online, it definitely became, 'Why would I write it in a book?' "

Online diaries have become a well-known phenomenon in recent years, with teenagers and young adults attracted to the genre in huge numbers. Raised on the Internet and reality television, these diarists make their writing accessible to friends, acquaintances and, often, to hundreds of millions of World Wide Web users. Many include their full names and school names.

Parents, teachers and police constantly urge young people not to reveal too much about themselves online. They warn that personal disclosures might be read by college admissions officers and potential employers, not to mention stalkers and pedophiles. The risks were underscored in a highly publicized 2005 Virginia murder case in which investigators looked for clues in the online journals of college student Taylor Behl and her killer.

But a review of major blogging and social-networking Web sites shows that online diaries remain popular for teenagers, and interviews with experts and young diarists such as Butler help explain the psychology behind going public with what used to be private thoughts.

A few examples from area high school students:

"Unfortunately I feel very distant from everyone. . . . Maybe it's just how I function. I think its probably my worst flaw."

"i feel she could be the one i know it is crazy because well i am 18 and all that but i really do i am just scared i have never let someone get as close to me as i have let her."

"i feel . . . invisible."

A Manassas area teenager writes of her sadness and loneliness after seeing her father choke to death on a piece of steak. A Montgomery County high-schooler recounts the bliss of falling in love for the first time and then, months later, the anguish of breaking up. A Prince William County girl sent to a group home laments that old friends seem more distant.

Of course, it is hard to know how many of these diary entries represent truth as the writers see it, fantasy or something in between. Regardless, young diarists say the journals connect them to a broader community, help them navigate the complexities of friendship and romance and allow them to vent.

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