Moral Panics about Girls Online

Rikki Kite

ROSE Blog: Rikki's Open Source Exchange

Sep 16, 2008 GMT
Rikki Kite

If you are on the Debian Women email list, you might have seen the recent link to an MIT Press Journals paper, "High Tech or High Risk: Moral Panics about Girls Online," by Justine Cassell and Meg Crame. The authors researched the history of girls and technology – from the telegraph to the Internet – and show an interesting pattern. People, especially parents, tend to be particularly concerned with how girls use the new technology. In the past, the concern had more to do with "appropriate" behavior for a young lady, whereas now people are more alarmed about online predators:

"In the current case, the panic over girls’ use of technology has taken the form of believing in an increased presence of child predators online. But, as we have shown, there has been no such increase in predatory behavior; on the contrary, the number of young women who have been preyed on by strangers has decreased, both in the online and offline worlds."

The authors explain that when they looked at the "kinds of statements made about the nature of the danger," they found that the technology wasn't the culprit as much as "... the potential sexual agency of young women, parental loss of control, and the specter of women who manifest technological prowess."

At 23 pages, this paper isn't a quick read, but I think it's pretty brilliant. The researchers say:

"Navigating the complexity of modern life as a girl is a full-time job. The work girls do online is legitimate work that should not be denied or ignored."

They explain that the Internet lets girls explore their identities in ways that they might not be able to in the real world, under the watchful eyes of adults:

"With luck, there will be a single difference between the moral panic surrounding the telegraph and the telephone, and that surrounding the internet: that we will come to recognize young women as more likely to be empowered by technology than damaged by it."

Still, I know from experience that it's a good idea to keep an eye on what your pre-teen daughter is doing online. My daughter, for example, is not allowed to email strangers, but I've caught her breaking this rule more than once. Lucky for her, she wasn't emailing any creepy perverts. Unfortunately for me, however, she was sending off for information about a private, expensive, out-of-state boarding school.

And, even more alarming, she was also emailing a producer of "Wife Swap" in an effort to get me traded for a new mom. At first I considered taking the computer away from my daughter for a few days, but then I had a better idea – I emailed the producer and asked her send me an application.

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