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Web window into a teenage world

Baltimore Sun

Amy Peyrot has the swinging moods of many a teenager. Except that, unlike in years past, those ups and downs are published for all the virtual world to see.

At her blog on the Xanga.com website, the 17-year-old senior at Polytechnic Institute chronicles the colleges she’s gotten into and her triumphs on the lacrosse field. And the times she feels like this: “Burning lips. chilled bones. empty stomach. empty everything.”

Teenagers around the world have turned to blogs to express thoughts that used to be hidden away in paper diaries. What once was intensely private -- even under lock and key -- is now boldly public for this wired generation.

Teenagers’ blogs run the gamut from giddy to mundane to dark, sometimes all within the same diary. Some writers adopt screen names like Alison the Apathetic, sk8trboy, dramaprincess or deathawaitsgirl. But authors often post their pictures, list their schools and sometimes their real names, making their journals easy to find for people who know them.

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In the case of Jeff Weise, the 16-year-old who killed nine people and himself last week in rural Minnesota, those public comments foreshadowed a horrific outcome.

The latest school shooting case has renewed questions about the online world of teenagers, whose blogs often intersperse a day’s banal details -- classes taken, movies watched, homework -- with expressions of despair, virulence, even the wish that life would end. Some teens want their blogs to be read so they will prompt real-life conversations, even tough ones.

And parents and friends who know where to look get a window on young lives that can both illuminate and confuse. But they can be left wondering how much is adolescent angst and how much is cause for real concern.

The Minnesota shootings have led Karen Patton, a Damascus, Md., mother of five teenagers who makes a point of reading their blogs, to question whether she is doing enough.

“It definitely makes you wonder how much you can know about what they’re doing online,” she said. “That’s why you have to kind of be in their face about it.”

But it is not always so easy to know whether a teenager’s blog contains truth, fiction, or something in between.

“Part of that is teenage expression, and it’s hard to know how seriously to take that,” said Amanda Lenhart, a research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which studies the effects of the Internet on families and communities. “I think teenagers are using the Internet as a place to experiment with their identity. They’re trying on new personae.”

Blog is short for weblog, a running chronicle that can take the form of reportage, commentary or online diary. Unlike a website, a blog can be created and customized -- quickly and for free -- using readily available templates. At Livejournal.com, teens can click on a symbol for their “current mood” and link to the music they’re listening to. Xanga lets readers send “eprops” -- an instant icon of affirmation.

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About 87% of youths ages 12 to 17 are regularly online, according to a new survey by the Pew project. Teenagers are more likely than adults to start blogs, Lenhart said. At Livejournal, 47% of the 2.7 million users who listed an age are 13 to 18.

Alan E. Kazdin, a psychology professor who directs the Yale University Child Study Center, said blogs may have become popular vehicles of self-expression for the same reasons that some people prefer undergoing therapy via computer: They can have intimate exchanges without being face to face. “The information might provide a window, so this might be a useful window,” he said.

The world revealed is often filled with the passions and obsessions of being a teenager.

Amy Peyrot, for example, wrote this in her blog last week: “I want to make a giant love/hate list. they always feel so good. it’s nice and cleansing to just think about and list all the stuff that makes you mad. but then you can write about all the stuff you love. and its just nice to purge some thought and time and emotion. and i want to do a giant one. gosh. i will have to find the time (is it horrible that i have to schedule something like that?)”

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Then there are the days to savor. “Today was awesome,” wrote Alvin Venturina, a 17-year-old junior at Poly, last week. “Didn’t do anything in almost every class, besides a select few.”

But for some young bloggers, the expressions can border on the self-destructive or violent.

Weise spoke of killing himself on his Livejournal blog. Other violent messages have been attributed to him from various pockets of the Internet, from postings to neo-Nazi message boards to a video that depicted a murderous rampage.

There were off-line signs of Weise’s troubles, too. He had been told to stay away from school and study from home. He had attempted suicide and was taking antidepressants.

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Several teen bloggers in the Baltimore area said that when they read comments from friends online that gesture toward suicide, they take time to message or call to make sure the writer is all right.

But in most cases they wouldn’t necessarily tell an adult. “Unless the adult specializes in teen counseling, I think it’s best when teens help other teens out because we know how the world suppresses and stresses us,” Alvin said.

The bloggers said exaggerating your feelings online -- even unwittingly -- is common in the teenage quest for attention. “A lot of people make stuff up, because they want readers to feel entertained at their journal,” he said.

Does the accessibility of these blogs, and the feelings they express, mean adults should be reading them?

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Many do, with or without their young bloggers’ knowledge. Patton, the Damascus mother, tells her teenagers she reads their blogs. “I would like to know what you’re putting out there,” she said she tells them. “There are weirdos out there putting out stuff. You have to be careful.” But not all parents are so vigilant. The Pew project reports that 62% of them check on their children’s online habits.

Judy Bowers, president of the American School Counselor Assn., says it would be impossible for schools to pick up the slack and monitor what their students are saying.

“My first thought is, how would you have the manpower to monitor that?” she said. “I think it’s really something that the families need to monitor.”

For some teens, the public blog is a not-so-hidden attempt to encourage such difficult conversations with parents and friends.

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Karol Patton, Karen Patton’s 15-year-old daughter, said she names names about her troubles with boys in the hope that the boys in question will read her blog and see her point of view. She also knows her mom will probably come into her room to ask what she can do to help.


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