Last spring, when my Bible class teacher spent an entire Sunday looking at every student’s MySpace that he could find, there was an uproar the following Monday. "Oh that’s so gross, he’s so nosy. He shouldn’t have a right to do that," girls said. Since my school has fewer than 200 high school students, by third period, everyone knew. If anyone was called to the office for innocent reasons, rumors spread that they were going to be suspended because of their MySpace.
During his Bible classes, Mr. Shaw told his students that he had viewed their MySpaces and had seen provocative pictures and vulgar language, and, as students at a Christian school, they should ask themselves if that was the right thing to do. He didn’t scold anyone in particular, but everyone wondered, "Was he talking about me?"
While everyone else panicked, I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to worry that I had posted something three months ago that I deeply regretted. I don’t have a MySpace and I never will.
At first, my not having a MySpace was no big statement. It just wasn’t convenient. I was already texting, instant messaging, talking on the phone and trying to keep up with homework in the midst of all this communication. Besides, my Internet access was slow and always crashed when I tried to view MySpace.com, where friends were posting pictures of themselves, their interests and entries about that they’ve been up to. Then it seemed like one day I woke up and everyone had a MySpace, and I had to become an extremist to hold my ground. People would ask me, "Why don’t you have a MySpace?" as if I was a freak of nature. I tried to explain that I thought it was too addicting, too tempting to exploit yourself, a huge cause of unneeded drama, and a total waste of time if you were just talking to the people you saw every day. Besides, how could you possibly have so many "friends" to brag about when you spent all your time sitting in front of your computer? Naturally, I came off sounding like a psycho fanatic. My rants about the ridiculousness of displaying personal emotions to be read by strangers all over the world caused some strange looks and awkward silences.
My school sent home a letter explaining what MySpace was—a site for networking and communication—and warning parents that students were misusing the site as a place to post suggestive pictures and obscene language. The school encouraged parents to view their children’s MySpaces and be aware of the dangers of publicly displayed personal information. After that, it was us against them. I was a MySpace hater, along with the administration and about three other students, and we were supposedly against the whole school. During homeroom, a friend told me that just because she had a MySpace, didn’t mean she was satanic. I was in a grumpy mood and made the mistake of saying something along the lines of, "MySpace isn’t the devil, it’s just where demons go to fester in their own bacteria." Later that day, as I walked into Bible class, I saw my words on Mr. Shaw’s blackboard for every class to see. Although a lot of people laughed good-naturedly at what I had said and I knew that Mr. Shaw had only displayed it for humor’s sake, now everyone in my claustrophobically tiny school would pair me with Mr. Shaw. We were the demon hunters out to evict people from their MySpace homes.
Myspace.com is not bad in itself
No one understood that I’m not against other people having MySpaces—most of my best friends have them, and I’ve delicately crept over to their pages a few times, worried that I’ll be accused of being a hypocrite, but curious nonetheless. And I agree with them that MySpace in itself is not morally wrong or even very dangerous. MySpace is a tool of communication, and for a lot of people, it is the only way to keep in touch.
So even though I felt that Mr. Shaw had not violated his rights as a teacher, I was uncomfortable that he had made it a personal duty of his to find signs of immorality in something unrelated to the school. In my opinion, parents should teach us morals while schools ought to be a place of opportunity, not restraint. In history class, we are taught to value the famous "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" from America’s Declaration of Independence. We are taught how important it is that the First Amendment protects our right to free speech. So when we step into our Bible class, do those rights go away? Of course the right of a teacher to view MySpaces—a publicly displayed domain—cannot be denied. But when does a school’s concern become an invasion of students’ privacy? Many private schools are dealing with this issue—how can they teach the values of American freedom alongside religious morals, and which will overrule the other? In search of answers, I interviewed Mr. Shaw and asked when the administration has a right to confront students about what is posted on their Internet sites. He responded, "When you are linking a site to the school or a group is directly linked to the school and they are taking their smut and associating it to the values of the school. Most private schools have students sign a code of conduct. It’s really an integrity issue."
As I interviewed Mr. Shaw, his concerns seemed reasonable and caring. Mr. Shaw had nothing to do with the letters being sent home, he said. He made a "blanket statement" to his classes about the dangers of MySpace and personally encouraged students who had shown good taste, but he did not directly reprimand or discipline anyone or speak to parents. This indirect approach worked well. "Six of the kids changed their MySpaces after I talked to the classes and had people think about what moral values you portray," he said.
When I asked what moved him to investigate, he said that a past speaker in our chapel services, the youth pastor from Church on the Way, had mentioned MySpace and the duty of a youth pastor to see what the youth are saying. He wasn’t trying to be nosy, he said, he was just viewing out of concern. Mr. Shaw said he was shocked by the immoral photos and words he saw. "The rumors prepared me, yeah, but I didn’t realize there’d be so many."
Although many students, especially girls, felt that he had violated their privacy and overstepped his obligations, he didn’t think this was even an issue. "It’s public domain. It’s on the Internet—anyone can see it. You shouldn’t put anything public that you’d be embarrassed about," he said.
What about those sexy photos and the random ads?
Several of the photos he described as borderline child pornography. He also saw that a former student’s Myspace had an advertisement with an indecent picture. Companies can advertise on any MySpace, making it seem that the MySpace owner is endorsing the advertisement even though he or she has no say in it. "Is it really your space?" asked Mr. Shaw.
It is true that no one regulates the content on minors’ MySpaces—in fact, many people lie about their age on MySpace. It is also true that anyone can view what is posted, from pornographic pictures to blogs about weekend drug experimentation to personal journal entries about depression. When MySpace owners realize how many people have viewed their page, they must consider that some of them could be men with dangerous intentions. When I have looked at MySpace, I have seen pictures of younger girls licking their fingers with seductive expressions or pulling on their shirts to show almost everything, and I am afraid for them. I love some of these girls as my kid sisters—they shouldn’t even know about the things their poses suggest! It’s not so much that I think they will meet some rapist in an alley—I have confidence in their intelligence—but I am sad that this exploitation is their idea of "fun." I believe that most of the teenagers who have provocative or controversial MySpaces don’t realize their photos and blogs may be viewed by teachers, grandparents, prowling sex offenders—anyone. I think that when teens are alone in front of the computer, they tend to be more reckless than they normally are—those "social norms" that normally give people self-control aren’t there and they "let loose."
However, most of my friends do not have scandalous MySpaces. Sometimes I look at them, but I usually end up bored (reading a profile for a close friend is about as interesting as filling out the personal information sheet on the SATs) or depressed that there are no pictures of me. The school newspaper might even get a MySpace if the staff pushes it enough. What is that? A newspaper can’t take raunchy pictures of itself … it can’t even have friends! My friends have joked that they will make me a MySpace and "be" me, but I made them promise not to. Everyone already sees me as "awful judgmental Selina who hates MySpace." I don’t want them to think I’m a total hypocrite also.
I don’t see a reason for me to have a MySpace. However, I strongly support students’ rights to have them. Schools may warn parents, but if they go any further and threaten to damage a student’s academic record for content on a personal Web page, I believe that these schools have violated individual rights. Attorney Mark Goodman, who specializes in student free speech, said that in California private schools can’t discipline students purely based on the things they say or write, even if schools disagree with them or even if the code of conduct says otherwise. (See interview on page 8). Perhaps MySpace is addicting and unwise, but schools are meant to teach and guide, not force morality or personal decisions. Students should not let anyone control their MySpace, but they should be aware of the risks and create their profiles in a responsible, thoughtful way. If I had a MySpace, it would seem obvious to me that the surreal mindset, invasive advertisements and unrestrained viewers kept the page from being my space, but it’s not my school’s space either.