Student blogs spur concern over safety, privacy loss
By Meg McSherry Breslin and James
Kimberly Tribune staff reporters
November 21, 2005
freshman's photo shows her sitting beside an open toilet seat, looking hung
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
Many college students say online directories are so popular that
it's unusual if a student doesn't have a profile posted.
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.
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