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PBS Frontline: 'Growing Up Online'

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio
Producers
Wednesday, January 23, 2008 11:00 AM

Frontline producers Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio were online Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss their film "Growing Up Online," which investigates the private worlds that kids are creating online and the risks, realities, and misconceptions of teenage self-expression on the Web.

" Growing Up Online" airs Tuesday, Jan. 22, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Dretzin has been producing documentaries for PBS's "Frontline" since the mid-1990s, including Peabody-winning "The Lost Children of Rockdale County," the award-winning three-part series "Failure to Protect," and "Merchants of Cool." She also has produced for WNET New York, NPR's "All Things Considered" MSNBC's "Edgewise," and most recently a 15-minute film for the New York Times Magazine on the Web.

Maggio has produced, directed and written several award-winning films, mostly for PBS's acclaimed series "American Experience," including last year's Emmy-nominated "Boy in the Bubble." His films have been honored with the national Emmy, Writers Guild Award and Cine Golden Eagle.

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Bethesda, Md.: Posting early -- great program. I was waiting for you to touch on the Megan Meier story. I think you briefly showed some news headlines about this story ... did you not have time for it, or feel that it has gotten enough exposure?

washingtonpost.com: A Deadly Web of Deceit: A Teen's Online 'Friend' Proved False, And Cyber-Vigilantes Are Avenging Her (Post, Jan. 10)

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: The Megan Meier story came out late in our process, when we had almost completed editing the program. That's one reason we didn't include it. We also felt that the Ryan Halligan story touched on many of the same issues that Megan Meier's story did -- cyberbullying and teen suicide -- and that story has received much less publicity.

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New York: Very interesting program. The program left the impression, perhaps unavoidably, that the students do so much of their socializing online, so I wondered if that is at the expense of real interaction with their peers in the traditional extracurricular activities of high school kids -- games, dances, clubs, etc.? Is computer use eroding real socializing?

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: You're right that the traditional forms of social interaction are being replaced by virtual socializing. We saw that happening when we were reporting this story. So many kids are so busy these days, with school and homework, sports and extracurriculars, that they are forced to spend more of their time socializing online. It's faster and it allows you to multitask while you're doing it. However, many kids acknowledged that there's a difference between real life and virtual socializing, and they still make some time for good old-fashioned hanging out.

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San Francisco: We are curious how you were able to get the kids to trust you so much that they told you things on camera they would not tell their parents?

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: We did make an effort to balance the program with some positive stories about the Internet. The story of Jessica Hunter (aka Autumn Edows) is the story of a girl who didn't fit in in her school or her community, but who found a supportive world online, one that allowed her to build self-esteem. At the end of the program, her father says that he is really glad the Internet was there for his daughter, who had nowhere to go and who "found a world she could live in." I think this is true for many many kids, who find something on the Internet that is positive and life-affirming.

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Akron, Ohio: I was very surprised how clueless the parents are. Did you find this to be the case?

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: It's true that most parents we met didn't seem to have a really good sense of what their kids were doing online. But the teenage years are a time when most kids do keep secrets from their parents, and it's much, much easier to do that with the Internet. Kids today can close their door and go online and say and do all sorts of stuff without ever making any noise or leaving the house. They used to have to leave your house to get into trouble; now they can get into trouble in the privacy of their own rooms!

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Teenagers not into this scene?: Did you talk to teens who were not into Facebook and MySpace, text messaging, etc., and get their reactions? My teen so far is not interested in this activity.

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: A few, but the truth is that the vast majority of teenagers we talked to were into social networking sites and/or texting and instant messaging. It's extremely widespread, particularly by the time kids hit high school. Some kids were less dependent on the Internet than others, and some found that they "grew out of it" as they got into the later years of high school. But we met very very few who weren't online.

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Valley Falls, N.Y.: I have been concerned about my daughter's Internet use for quite some time now. I am aware of many inappropriate pictures, screen names and messages that she is putting out there. How can a parent monitor this activity without standing over a child's back every moment? I am computer literate in the basics but do not use, or know how to navigate sites such as MySpace or YouTube.

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: You touch on a very common dilemma. Many parents don't feel as computer literate as their children, yet they want to find a way to monitor their kids computer use. There are many parental monitoring programs that are easy to use. If you find a parenting blog, I'm sure you'll be able to get some useful information from other parents about good, simple programs that you don't need to be a rocket scientist to use.

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Trinidad: How did you go about your research for this program? How did you get parents and teenagers to be so open?

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: We started by visiting schools and meeting with groups of students (no cameras, no recording devices). We'd ask kids basic questions about how they use the Internet and what role it plays in their lives. We'd also ask them about other kids they knew who might have a story to tell relating to the Internet. Usually, we just got to know the kids pretty superficially in these groups, but it gave us an "in", and we'd choose a handful of kids from the groups to meet with again individually. Eventually we got to know each school we worked in well enough that we had a sense of which kids would be interesting to talk to.

As for getting kids to open up, that's harder to answer. I've produced several programs for Frontline about teenagers ("The Lost Children of Rockdale County", "Merchants of Cool") so I've had a bit of experience interviewing children. I have children of my own. I also think that kids can be especially open in front of a camera. Many kids are much more used to talking to cameras than adults; after all, they've grown up in a media-saturated culture, with home video cameras, cellphone cameras, YouTube, reality TV and all the rest. It's second nature to them!

Thanks for your question.

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What is with all the photos?: I am a married woman in my mid-30s. My friends and I did plenty of bad and illegal things before we were "of age." We also never ever took pictures of any of it. I guarantee that I would have yelled at a guy or girl that took physical evidence of me doing something that I could get in trouble for. These kids today just baffle me. Why do they take pictures of everything? I was forced to flip through photos of my 20-year-old sister-in-law at a frat party. She was doing all the normal stuff you do at a frat party, but why document it? No one looks good when drunk -- plus it is proof of underage intoxication.

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: The truth is, teenagers have collected photos of themselves and their friends since time immemorial. The difference today is that they have the tools to do it constantly and at a moment's notice: cellphone cameras, Web cams and video cameras. As for taking photos of themselves doing illegal or inappropriate things, I think that's partly because of the voyeuristic culture they're growing up in. In the age of reality television, none of this is that surprising, is it?

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Florida: Rachel and John -- it seemed to me that the "Growing Up Online" program was very one-sided. To focus on only the negative aspects of the Internet is anything but a balanced viewpoint. To tell you the truth, my first reaction was "how can I make a rebuttal so that the world can see the positive sides?" So my question to you is this: Because I am certain you filmed it, why didn't you also present the good sides of the Internet?

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: We tried to make the program as balanced as possible. The story of Jessica Hunter (aka Autumn Edows) is the story of a girl who had a hard time fitting in in her school and community, but who was able to find a supportive world online. At the end of the program, her father talks about how much he thinks the Internet helped his daughter, and says "she found a world she could live in." This is a very common story -- kids who find supportive, like-minded communities online when they can't find them in the "real world" -- and we hope that Jessica's story speaks to those kids.

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Chatham, N.J.: Great program last night! What would you suggest is a "happy medium" to keep kids safe and educated while keeping the paranoia of the parents at a low level?

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: Realism. Most kids are going to be just fine. I don't think that the Internet transforms healthy kids into unhealthy kids, well-adjusted kids into troubled kids. But for kids who are at risk emotionally, the Internet can become a rabbit hole. I think that parents should focus on the issues their children are facing in the real world, and know that if those issues are under control, their kids use of the Internet is likely to be too.

In addition, schools and independent organizations increasingly are educating kids and their parents about how to behave in the virtual world, which needs to operate by the same kinds of rules of behavior as the real one.

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Philadelphia: Great documentary. What has happened to high school cliques in the cyber age?

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: High school cliques are alive and well! The Internet can provide another medium for kids' traditional social lives at school to play out. It also can give kids a chance to talk to other kids they might never socialize with at school, opening up additional resources for kids who might feel trapped socially.

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Boston: Did you encounter the data-mining aspect of these social sites? That both public and private interests trawl the data about these "living" entities now and forever troubles me greatly. Did any of your interviewees perceive this?

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: The data-mining issue, while very disturbing to most adults, did not seem to trouble the kids we talked to. Some of course are not aware of it, but kids today have grown up in a world made of marketing, and most of them are accustomed to the idea that their lives and habits are tracked and picked over by public and private interests. It just doesn't phase them!

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Overland Park, Kan.: My daughter resisted joining a social networking Web site all during high school, but felt "forced" to join one as a freshman in college this past fall because some members of the various campus clubs she was involved in only communicated via the sites. These members only check their Facebook or MySpace accounts -- not their college e-mail accounts.

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: We were surprised that when we would e-mail kids we'd never get a response, but when we posted a note on their Facebook or MySpace accounts, we'd hear right back. Kids see e-mail the way we see writing a letter: as a quaint and somewhat slow form of communication! Instant messaging is used widely, as is text messaging and posting on social networking sites, but e-mail is not.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Our daughter is experiencing cyberbullying at this time and we're finding law enforcement apathetic to do anything because it is difficult to know who the perpetrator(s) are. Did any of the subjects you interviewed experience this?

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: John Halligan, the father of the boy in the film who committed suicide, has has had quite a bit of experience dealing with the difficulty of involving law enforcement in cyberbullying cases. I urge you to get in touch with him; he has a Web site in memory of his son where he can receive e-mails and the information is on Frontline's Web site. You also might look into a Web site called WiredSafety.com.

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Chicopee, Mass.: How do I go about obtaining a copy of the broadcast about "Growing Up Online"? I am curious to know the process through which the small pictures and clips that were taken from MySpace were chosen.

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: You should be able to get information about obtaining a copy of the program on Frontline's Web site.

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Framingham, Mass.: Great program last night -- I'm surprised at criticism I've read today, including a Boston Globe review yesterday about how clueless the parents appeared. But in a couple of cases (Ryan's dad and the PTO president) they were all-too savvy about the online world -- the problem was in how to interpose yourself without intruding, the classic parental quandary.

It seems to me that you need to make some unpopular decisions as a parent to have a fighting chance -- e.g. keep the computer visible and/or have good communication about what your kids are doing on the 'Net. But no matter what, things still can go awry. your program helped lay some groundwork for me to go after it -- my kids are not very wired just yet, but it'll be impossible to control as they get older. Thanks!

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: It's true that parents are up against a great deal of resistance when they try and monitor what their kids are doing online. What may seem like ignorance also can be something else: a recognition of one's limits and challenges as a parent. I agree with you that several of the parents in the program were more realistic than they were ignorant about the hurdles they face parenting in the age of the Internet. We hope that their stories will at the very least spark a conversation between parents about how to navigate this very difficult time in our children's lives.

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Evanston, Ill.: I was interested in the young man who joined the Coast Guard Academy upon high school graduation. He seemed more ready to give up his wired lifestyle than his parents were willing to admit. What do you make of this? It seems to me the old struggle between youth and elders -- youth wants to be stopped even though they seem to want things that may not be good for them.

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: Several older teenagers we met while reporting this program told us that they were beginning to grow away from their dependence on the Internet, especially when it came to social interaction. Perhaps they felt what Greg Bukata did: that there is no replacement for the face-to-face. As kids begin to develop more defined identities and interests, the Internet's fascination as a tool for "trying on identities" may weaken.

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Damascus, Md.: Great show! I am a teacher and parent of teenagers. The young folks on the show exhibited typical signs of "addiction" to the online world, though that angle was not pursued in detail. Fixating on anything in life all the time is unhealthy. There is no balance with these kids. This is a mental health problem that the kids have now. What happened to going on dates? Going to movies? Sports? Do you agree?

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: The kids we met do in fact spend time playing sports, engaging in extracurricular activities, and to a certain extent, hanging out with their friends (although often in front of a video game or computer screen!). The overscheduling of our kids, with everyone focused on building a resume for college, ensures that many kids don't have hours to waste sitting in front of a computer monitor. A larger problem we observed is the lack of quiet -- of silence -- in kids lives. They constantly are communicating with each other via texting, cellphone, IM etc. -- and they all multitask -- listening to music and checking their Facebook page while doing their homework, for example. Few of them seem to ever stop and just stare at the ceiling, read a book, or do nothing. That struck us as more troubling than anything else.

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Yardley, Pa.: I'm concerned with the role the Internet plays in education. How do we keep the teachers informed and up-to-date with the students, and how do we get the students to make better use what is available?

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: The problem most schools face is not a lack of computers, but a lack of skills to use them. Technology can be such an extraordinary asset to education, but most teachers -- especially those who are older -- don't necessarily know how to harness it in the classroom. The focus thus far has been on leveling the playing field and ensuring that all schools have access to technology, but perhaps it needs to shift. The real challenge is bringing all teachers up to speed and making sure they learn how to use the technology gathering dust in the back of their classroom.

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New Jersey: You mentioned that the Autumn Edows story was your "positive slant," but a child posting revealing photographs online doesn't seem too positive to me. Isn't there more to the Internet than this, or is this as good as it gets?

Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio: The impact of the Internet on education, which we touched on in the early part of the program, offers extraordinary possibilities. Steve Maher, the teacher we profiled at Chatham High, talks about how he can bring his lessons alive to his students using audio and video, making their education seem relevant and multidimensional. Most teachers don't yet have the skills to use the Internet well in the classroom, but for those who do, it can be a tremendous tool. There are concerns (as articulated by the other teacher, Rose Porpora) about what is lost when kids become used to so much so easily and so fast.

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