Craigslist Killer improves Global Education

It’s true: The Craigslist Killer will improve education.  Why?  The simple answer: awareness of “what’s out there” will improve our students’ ability to discriminate sources, be safe web users and responsible internet contributors.  Believe it or not, it all comes back to one essential question: 

How does peer pressure influence adolescent behavior?

As my eighth grade students start to head into young-adulthood, they will be faced with decisions and issues, not unlike decisions and issues adolescents have always faced: 

  •       What's my social standing?  
  •       Am I popular?  
  •       Who am I?
  •       Do I fit in?

These questions certainly do pressure and guide students’ behaviors, and I am quite certain that as time goes on, students will continue to face similar issues, albeit some iteration of these questions.  Generations change, but adolescent issues and behavior remain relatively constant.  Regardless of it being 1959, 1989 or 2009, students need to be given the tools to be thoughtful, responsible young adults, and it is our duty to teach our students how to address these issues in today’s society.  Students have always needed and will continue to need help in problem solving, reflecting and adapting.


Let’s take this question - How does peer pressure influence adolescent behavior? – and apply it to three different eras.  Students face similar issues and peer pressures in each situation, although the context/era is different. 


50 years ago, my father faced these questions, and he may have been dared to steal and throw a potato at a car from the farm across the street.  30 years later, the sprawling Walt Whitman Mall replaced the potato farm, but kids continued to face this question; they may have fell victim to shoplifting a candy bar on a dare to fit in.  Today, however, kids are still at the mall, still facing these same questions, but are now congregating in food court, taking videos and pictures, and uploading them to YouTube or Facebook to embarrass themselves or others.


All three scenarios are typical of adolescent behavior, but their means and access to technology has added a layer of complexity never before seen, that changes how kids respond to peer pressure, social standing questions, and how to fit in.


So how does the Craigslist Killer improve education?  Awareness of risky decisions on the internet and the concept of think-before-you-click can only improve our students ability to successfully, thoughtfully and safely utilize the internet in the 21st century.


Our students today approach a crossroads when it comes time to make decisions.  Sometimes eighth graders make good, thoughtful decisions, but sometimes, other factors take over, and poor decisions are made (see 1959, 1989 and 2009 decisions above).  Adolescent decision-making continues to be difficult, and as adults, we must continue to monitor, give advice, opportunities to reflect, and especially the chance to learn from one's mistakes.  The added burden that our students in 2009 are facing is that wider spectrum of opportunities to be impulsive and make poor decisions, more easily than ever, with easier access to information than before, with, as a consequence, greater potential for disaster than before.  


What is different in 2009 is that students can more easily make decisions that are more permanent and with greater potential for negative consequences (typically, throwing a potato or stealing a candy bar, while a bad idea, doesn’t lead to much worse than a slap on the wrist).  Kids are still thinking: If I do this, it may make me more popular, and it won't really hurt anyone, and think of how much I'll impress others...why not...


  •       In 1959: Throw the potato.
  •       In 1989: Steal the candy bar.
  •       In 2009: CLICK.  


The 2009 decision is both the easiest to complete and the one with the greatest potential for danger.  This is frightening!  So what are we to do?  Turn the other way?  Shelter our students?  No: We are to teach our students (and children) about responsible behavior, worthwhile contributions on the internet, and ways to avoid dangerous situations (think-before-you-click!).  It’s harder than it has ever been, but more important than it’s ever been.


We are faced with a generation of students (and soon adults) that need to understand that decision-making will be harder for them; it is a more complicated, tangled web than ever before, but one that must be traversed successfully by the students themselves in order to function, live and flourish in a global society.  


A frightening point: not everyone thinks we should be teaching our children to learn these discerning, discriminating and safety skills.  I was reading the Boston Globe yesterday, and stumbled upon this short, but disturbing editorial: Crime and Craigslist.  The supposed "Craigslist Killer" in Boston has caused all sorts of buzz around Boston, rightfully so, and the author of said editorial states that "Either Web companies such as Craigslist need to take more responsibility for how their sites are used, or Americans need to get used to a lot more risk in the spaces where they gather."  Unfortunately, I think both are unreasonable, and as educators, we must be realistic about the fact that both are unlikely to occur. 


The Globe seems to be advocating for control of website content, but the fact of the matter is that our students today may be sheltered from inappropriate content on the web, but tomorrow they may not be - the firewall may be down, a new “Samslist” may have been created, they may be at home upsupervised, at the library, or at a friend's house.  Instead of thinking shelter our poor babies, we must think, how will my child/student/future adult react when they need to make important decisions about their online behavior?  Will they think-before-they-click?  The future is one that holds risks, but many, many advantages and opportunities.  Yes, we must provide safe, appropriate educational environments for our students, but more importantly in the long run, we need to mold discerning, able, savvy 21st century learners and workers; this will not be accomplished by doing what the Globe suggests, because once “Craigslist” has been "made safe," a new alternative will be created.  The question becomes, then, not How do I shelter my students? but instead, How can I help my students become responsible web users and provide the safest learning environment?  And, How does peer pressure influence adolescent behavior in the online, 2009 world?


Certainly, all teachers have experienced times when students have unwittingly and (very) innocently stumbled upon something for which they were certainly not searching.  The crucial moment here is how we have prepared our students to react.  I'm not suggesting that students are regularly stumbling upon the Craigslist Killer by mistake ("Oops, Mr. Guditus, I just mistakenly contacted the Craigslist Killer again while searching for DaVinci's biography..."), or even that they would purposely seek out inappropriate content, but the reality of the situation is that it is likely that our students may come across something inappropriate.


According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at UNH, 42 percent of youth ages 10 to 17 were exposed to online pornography prior to being asked, and 66 percent said it was unintentional.  Likely these numbers are higher than are even reported by the children surveyed, so as educators/teachers/parents, we need to speak with our students/children and discuss peer pressure, cyberbullying and online personas and behavior.  To not do so would be irresponsible. 


I’m not sure what will happen to the alleged Craigslist Killer.  But I do hope that the case will shed light on the fact that we cannot shelter our children from the world – especially the global, 21st century world – but instead speak to them about the reality of the online world, give them safe and appropriate places to learn and explore online (and offline), and remember that kids are kids and need our help to learn responsible behavior, even when they are more techno-savvy than we are.  They are, after all, the future adults and leaders of our world.


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