Student blogs spur concern over safety, privacy loss

By Meg McSherry Breslin and James Kimberly
Tribune staff reporters

November 21, 2005

One college freshman's photo shows her sitting beside an open toilet seat, looking hung over.

The profile she posted on an online college directory describes her as a "firewoman." "And you slide down my pole," she writes. "Does that make you hot?"

If it does, by the way, contacting her is as easy as picking up the phone or stopping by her dorm room. Her cell phone number and address are posted there too.

Hers is one of millions of student "profiles" created on wildly popular online Web logs, or blogs, and Internet student directories for college students and teens. Their frank and accessible Web conversation has expanded to a variety of open forums, and much of it has campus leaders concerned.

Online blogs--including MySpace, Xanga and Live Journal--are the most intimate, much like paper diaries updated with details from daily lives. Privacy provisions are included, but most are open to anyone with an Internet connection, even--to the surprise of some students--their parents.

Student directories on the Web, such as the new Facebook, are less public because they are designed to be limited to other students at a specific school and can be even further restricted if desired. But the entries can be just as revealing as blogs, and many students say it's easy to access students at other campuses whom you invite to join the conversation as "friends."

Profiles on Facebook can include everything from a student's major and outside activities to the color of their underwear, their place of employment and contact information. Most students also attach photographs, often to get a laugh. Pictures of young people passed out in bathtubs or balancing beers on their heads are common.

False sense of security

As amusing as it may be to a generation that grew up with the Internet, the trend is prompting warnings from campus leaders.

"I'm worried because certainly there's some safety concerns," said Ann Marie Morgan, assistant dean of students at Loyola University Chicago. "I think they view this online environment as fun and kind of fake. But they don't realize in some ways that the stuff that gets put out there doesn't go away. They have no idea that this can come back to haunt you."

For some students, it already has. Michael Sullivan, deputy bureau chief for the High-Tech Crimes Bureauof the Illinois attorney general's office said his office has taken reports of students being approached by unwanted visitors after posting their phone numbers or dorm room numbers in online journals. The cases didn't turn into criminal concerns but were a wake-up call to parents and the campuses, he said.

Often, students use Web journals as a sort of counseling session. Some have related a history of family turmoil, sexual abuse or depression.

"I have recently come to terms with a rape that occurred at the beginning of college; a rape that stole my virginity and kept me ashamed. ... I told my family. I told my friends. And now, I'm telling you," an Illinois State University senior posted on her blog recently.

Students may get a false sense of security that their information will be read only by other students or a limited group. Yet much of it can be open to a larger audience despite privacy protections set up by the sites, Sullivan said.

"You're not only putting out how to get a hold of you, but you're actually telling what the problems are in your life, which gives predators a chance to know what buttons to push," he said.

Future impact questioned

Yet the warnings can fall on deaf ears for young adults who see online discussions being as natural as talking on a cell phone and as a vital part of their social fabric.

In fact, college students with important news to share often turn first to blogs. That was evident when Illinois State University senior Olamide Adeyooye was reported missing in mid-October. Even before Adeyooye's body was found a week later--the victim of a slaying--students from across campus and around the country were leaving messages of concern on Adeyooye's MySpace blog.

After her death, the blog became much like an online shrine to Adeyooye, with tributes to her and hundreds of sympathy notes to her friends.

Still, some fear that the intimate side students share presents perils beyond the security issues. Revealing blogs can also come back to bite during job interviews. Also, that funny photo at the beer bong might not be so humorous if you're running for political office 20 years later.

"Anyone who Googles your name can see a picture of you balancing a beer on your head, and you're going to be thrown right out of consideration for a job," said Catherine Bath, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Security on Campus advocacy group.

Still, quelling the booming interest is turning into a huge task.

At least 8 million youths ages 12 to 17 read or create blogs, according to a study released this month by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Facebook, created by Harvard University students in 2003, has grown from a few hundred users in its first year to more than 8.5 million.

Facebook is available on every college campus in the country and became available at 22,000 high schools in September. High school students can access the site by being invited in by friends at college campuses and then can quickly bring in friends at their schools. There's no cost to users, because the site is supported by ads, although the ads do not yet appear on the high school version.

Many college students say online directories are so popular that it's unusual if a student doesn't have a profile posted.

"I love Facebook. ... I'm just sucked into it," said Christine Cassa of Lisle, a freshman at the University of Iowa. "If you meet someone in class or somewhere, you go home and Facebook them."

Some students say they do take steps to secure their information, such as eliminating their address and phone number and blocking out visitors from outside their own campus or anyone else they don't want viewing the site.

"We give our users complete control over their information," said Chris Hughes, one of Facebook's founders.

Blocking out visitors outside their own campus makes many students feel safer, even if it's a campus of 30,000 undergraduates.

"At least you know it's OK if it's someone with a UIUC address and not some creepy guy," said Emily Netter, a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The sense of security students feel is not only misplaced but also the biggest part of the appeal for sites like Facebook, said Michael Kearns, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania.

"It almost gives the impression of a closed community, which it is not," Kearns said.


Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune