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Linton Weeks The Navigator - Live

Hosted by Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, April 15, 1999

Thank you for visiting "The Navigator Live." Today's chat ended at 3 p.m. EST.

My guest today was James Feldman of KidsPeace, a national center for kids in crisis. Feldman answered questions about teenagers' problems today, ways in which the Internet helps and hurts, and his group's Web site,

"The Navigator Live" appears each Thursday from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern time. It's a live, moderated discussion offering users the chance to talk directly to intriguing and sometimes unusual guests who are shaping the digital world. "The Navigator" appears in The Washington Post print edition every Thursday. You can read past columns by following this link.


Linton Weeks: Greetings and welcome to another spine-tingling episode of Navigator--Live. Let's get right to the questions.

Linton Weeks: Hello. Please tell us about KidsPeace and

James Feldman: Hello. Please tell us abut KidsPeace and
KidsPeace is the oldest, most comprehensive organization in America dedicated to helping give kids the confidence, skills and resources to overcome crises. We help more than 2.000 children everyday at 25 centers across the nation. We reach millions more children and families through national outreach and intervention programs.

TeenCentral.Net is a revolutionary website dedicated to helping teens address the many crises of growing up. The site anonymously builds a profile of site visitors and provides them with stories and advice relative to their unique needs. The site also features celebrity profiles and stories of their own crises growing up and how they effectively dealt with them. Teens can also enter their own stories and respond to others in an effort to give other kids input on what helped them.

The site also features resources, including 800-numbers, that kids can access for immediate help, 24 hours a day.

Linton Weeks: How did you get involved in the organization?

James Feldman: How did you get involved in the organization?
I originally was hired as director of outpatient psychiatric services. This service provides counseling and therapy to children and families. I've been with KidsPeace for nearly 15 years.
And for the past several years, I have been working on the development of TeenCentral.Net.

Linton Weeks: Who had the idea to do a Web site?

James Feldman: Who had the idea to do a Web site?
As a result of our vast clinical experience with kids and several national research surveys, we looked at the importance of delivering information to kids when and where they needed it. We talked to kids through focus groups and discovered their comfort with technology and their interest in using technology for this purpose. It was from there that we took their idea and developed the concept on the website which marries the mission of the organization with the needs of kids.

Linton Weeks: You advertise the site as an anonymous and safe way for young folks to deal with crises. How does that work? Isn't anonymity on the Internet sometimes a drawback--people are not always who they seem to be?

James Feldman: Since the site isn't interactive in the sense that people directly and in real-time talk to eachother, and because all incoming stories and communications are screened by our staff of mental health professionals, there really is no danger or threat to teens safety in terms of who they are communicating with.

On the contrary, our experience to date is that teens are extremely motivated to share their own personal stories in order to help other kids through their crises, on the condition that the sharing is anonymous.

Linton Weeks: How many kids are using the Web site?

James Feldman: The site has only been live for several months and we have just recently begun to publicize its existance. Despite the fact that it's so new and our outreach has been limited to date, we are now receiving 10,000 hits per week.

We have produced a PSA to publicize the site which was released within the past two months. To date there have been 36,203 airing of the sport. As a result, we are already seeing a significant jump in visits to the site.

Linton Weeks: What are some of the common problems among teens these days?

James Feldman: The most significant issues that kids are talking about on the site are:

friends(making and keeping)
boyfriend/girlfriend problems
fitting in
parental problems
losing someone close
teen violence
physical abuse
family issues
sexual activity

These are the top concerns at the present time. But, the current list of issues that kids are talking about totals, roughly, 120 different topics.

Linton Weeks: How do your counselors treat these problems?

James Feldman: We don't do on-line therapy with site visitors. Kids are given resource pages and phone numbers that they can access in order to get additional information and help. If our professionals receive a story that causes them serious concern for a child's safety, we will immediately respond back by suggesting that child call our 800-number for immediate crisis intervention.

Linton Weeks: What are some of the good things that have happened since the Web site was launched?

James Feldman: The response has been overwhelming and it will only continue to grow based on the feedback we're getting from kids. Secondly, the interest that kids have shown in not only sharing their own stories but in responding to other stories in an effort to help them has been extremely encoraging. This demonstrates, contrary to public opinion, that kids are much more interested in helping each other than leading each other astray.

Linton Weeks: What if you receive a cry of help from someone who insists on remaining anonymous?

James Feldman: All communication is anonymous. Like I mentioned above, we will respond back to the story with an 800-help number for the child to contact for immediately help. One of the things kids have consistently told us they like about TeenCentral.Net is the fact that it is anonymous and they can say what they feel.

Hampton, VA: Do you really believe that it is healthy for kids to rely on a coumputer networkd to solve their problems?

James Feldman: We see TeenCentral.Net as a resource to help teens find solutions to their problems. Kids tell us they want the information and the tools so they can try to handle things on their own. The website is designed to give kids the information and resources they need.

Our research and work with kids tells us that the use of technology is another tool that kids want to use in the search for answers. So in effect, kids aren't relying on a computer to solve a problem, but are using the technology as a way to get resources.

Iowa City, IA: A recent study said that the act of writing about stressful events diminishes the long-term physical, emotional, and mental effects of stress on a person. Have you noticed that effect on your website?

James Feldman: It's too early to tell. But what we do see is the therapeutic value of sharing their own stories with others. Teens tell us helping others not only makes them feel good, but also is a way to reinforce their own problem-solving skills. We hope to research this issue further and perhaps add to the study you quoted.

Washington, DC: What are the boundaries of anonymity -- like if a kid posts a story about participating in a violent crime or threatens suicide?

James Feldman: There is total anonymity -- even we don't know who is submitting the stories. We can respond to each story on an individual basis. So if someone reports their involvement in a violent crime or talks about feeling suicidal we will respond back with appropriate resources and referral information, including a toll-free number available 24 hours a day.

Washington, DC: What is your background academically and-or professionally? Do you have background in child psychology or education?

James Feldman: My training is in clinical social work. I am a licsensed clinical social worker with a Ph.D. in human development with a subspecialty in child maltreatment.

I have provided direct services to children and families and adults for 29 years in a variety of inpatient and outpatient settings.

Arlington, VA: People always say that kids are "worse" than ever before -- ruder, more violent, less disciplined. However, I seem to remember the same things being said when I was a teenager -I'm 30-. Do you think that society has a point, or is it that we just all grow less tolerant of the young as we grow older?

James Feldman: Our experience on the website is that teens are reaching out and seem to be motivated to help their peers. We often hear about peer pressure and think of it with negative overtones. In our case, teens are demonstrating quite the opposite. Their is an interest and willingness to share with others for the sake of helping. While I think the stresses and pressures on teens are greater than ever before, we at KidsPeace experience their successes every day in our treatment programs. This is what motivated us to create the website and allow kids the opportunity on a larger scale to help each other.

Virginia: Do you get many notes from kids in war torn countries?

James Feldman: Great question! Not yet, although we've gotten stories from kids in all 50 states, including U.S. airforce bases and also from 26 foreign countries.

Since the website is so new our hope is that it will become a resource for kids in all parts of the world and will provide kids the opportunity not only to share unique experiences but to discover that we're much more common than different.

Washington DC: Do you ever meet people who first contacted you through the Internet?

James Feldman: Yes, we've had kids whose first experience with KidsPeace and our treatment programs has been through the internet. It seems that they've used the internet to develop a degree of comfort with who we are and then to reach out to us for additional help.

Washington DC: How can you tell if your teenager is depressed?

James Feldman: There are lots of warning signs for depression. Let me just list a few although I recommend you talk to a local professional for additional information.

Some warning signs include:
lack of appetite
sleep disturbance
not taking pleasure in things that they normally enjoy
difficulty concentrating
slipping grades
other body aches
talking about suicide
expressing feelings of hopelessness and helplessness

These are only a few of many warning signs. For more information call our national help line at 800-334-4KID. This 24 hour help line is staffed by masters-level professionals. Give them a call.

maine: do kids ever respond negatively to each other, and if so what do you do then?

James Feldman: It's very rare. We won't post any information that communicates anything hurtful to kids. The website is designed for kids to help other kids. I'm happy to say that of the 86,000 visits in the last couple of months, virtually all of them have been positive.

Linton Weeks: Well, folks, we're beyond the midway point. I'll take a sip of decaf and you keep those keen and probing questions coming.

Somewhere, USA: It seems that most of the concerns that teens and children have today are timeless. What are some of the more prominent problems discussed that are entirely unique to this generation?

James Feldman: You're right, most issues are timeless although there are more contemporary concerns including:
sexual diseases (especially AIDS)
teen-to-teen violence (this includes use of deadly force)
suicide (the Centers for Disease Control reported the suicide rate for teenagers more than doubled in the last ten years)
abuse (there are kids who are talking about experiences of victimization, physically and sexually)
loss (because of increased suicide rates and violence, kids are having to struggle with the loss of family and friends more than ever before)

Washington, DC: How accurate can an annonymous website be in terms of dealing with fragile teenagers and their problems which might be very serious? Could a site like this be potentially dangerous or harmful to a juvenile?

James Feldman: Keep in mind the purpose of the site is to provide resources and information that often are not available or difficult to get. We're not attempting to do on-line therapy. All information sent by kids is screened by our staff of mental health professionals to ensure the appropriateness of all infomration provided. In addition, the site contains locations where kids can access critical information, resources, and crisis/hotline numbers in their geographic location.

One of the most frequent recommendations we provide is to steer kids in the direction of talking to others they trust such as parents, teachers, religious leaders or others they feel they can turn to. In cases where they have no one to turn to, KidsPeace provides a toll-free helpline.

Washington, DC: How accurate is the personality tracking device? What criteria and categories are used to peg kids?

James Feldman: We're collecting a variety of demographic data as kids log on. This data helps us create a profile of that particular child so that as that child requests information and stories appropriate stories are provided as match the child's demographic profile.

Our hope is that as the software becomes more sophisticated, we'll be able to better asses the outcome of this profile and matching process.

Bethesda, Maryland: Isn't the problem with many teenagers that they stay on the Internet too much?

James Feldman: Perhaps. Keep in mind though the purpose of TeenCentral.Net is to help kids confront and deal with the real issues that concern them the most. It's a resource designed by kids to be responsive and practical at a time of crisis.

Our intent in creating the website was to provide the kind of content that so many people feel is lacking on the internet. I hope we're doing that.

Rockville: How many kids have signed up on your site? How many anonymous profiles are you maintining?

James Feldman: We're getting about 10,000 hits per week right now with about 65% of those users being girls, 35% are boys. The average age is 14 to 16 years old. We hope to get an accurate count, but right now I don't have an exact number.

Bethesda, Maryland: In your years of experience and research, have you found that the differences between adolescent girls and adolescent boys is diminishing, or increasing?

James Feldman: I think concerns of adolescent boys and girls is converging more than ever before around issues of sexuality, dating, concerns around school, dating and more serious problems including suicide, drug use, family issues, abuse and depression. While I think adolescent boys and girls are dealing with different issues, many of which are culturally assigned, I think contemporary life has exposed them to much more similarity than difference in their everyday lives.

Rockville: Your site sounds limited in its scope. Have you thought about expanding into chat rooms and real-time online counseling?

James Feldman: Our conerns about chat rooms revolve around safety so that right now that's not something we're planning. As for online counseling, TeenCentral.Net has not been designed to provide this service. We're much more interested in giving kids information and resources and referring them to professionals in their area. In cases where kids need to talk to someone, they can reach us at our toll-free helpline where they can talk to our professionals 24 hours a day.

Arlington, VA: I just read Wendy Shalit's new book, "A Return to Modesty," which in effect rationalizes old-fashioned chivalrous male-female relationships and gender roles, and wondered if the confusion of the teens at TeenCentral.Net reflects her thesis that the world is too complex?

James Feldman: While I think the world is more complex, I also think many of us aren't prepared to give teens the information they need to handle the challenges they face. The reason we created TeenCentral.Net was because kids told us they didn't always know where to find the help and information they needed, when they needed it. One of our recent national surveys of teens found that they look to their parents as the number one source of information. A previous survey demonstrated parents don't often feel prepared to deal with the kinds of issues that kids sometimes present. So I think what we need to do is better prepare parents and other adults who are sources of support for kids with the information that kids say they really need. This is easier said than done and require a coordinated, national effort, not only on the part of professionals but with the help and committment of the media.

Rockville: Do we really need counselors and psychologists for young people? Didn't adolescent kids do just fine without them for centuries?

James Feldman: Yes and no. I think there are always those kids who are able with support from family and others to successfully confront and overcome hurdles they face.

However, given the kinds of issues we all read about every day, it's clear that life is tougher.

There are more and more kids who aren't lucky enough to have the kind of family support system they need in order to overcome some pretty tough obstacles.

Linton Weeks: Thanks folks. That's all for today. Thanks so much to our guest James Feldman, to the folks at and to all of the great askers of great questions. Next week my guest will be Declan McCullagh, chief Washington correspondent for Wired News. Until then...

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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