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Teenangels / Internet Safety / Cyberbullying / “Because I Can”

“Because I Can”

When Kids Act Out Violent Fantasies Online by Parry Aftab

All kids act out fantasies online, pretending to be someone or something they’re not. But sometimes they act out violent fantasies online, too. Twenty seventh-graders sat quietly in the library, not quite sure who I was or why they were seated there. I looked around at the group. These were typical suburban, well-mannered kids. They lived in a town with good schools, safe streets, and PTA bake sales. I didn’t expect any surprises. (Now, for you parents and teachers out there, you know what happened next.)

I asked them how often they used the Internet and what they did online. Each responded that they used it daily. Most admitted to chatting online, surfing music and sports sites, and sending instant messages and e-mail to friends. Some had set up their own Web sites. I received typical responses to my typical questions.

Then I asked them what they did online that their parents wouldn’t want them to do. (I am always amazed how many kids confess outrageous things to me, just to be helpful.) That’s when it got interesting. A few kids admitted to setting up a Web site that made fun of an overweight girl in the school. They told others in school about the site, and the girl was very upset, understandably. They put up a fake profile on AOL, pretending to be her. (These kids had way too much time on their hands.)

A few others admitted to using a parent’s credit card to access adult sites. (It had somehow never occurred to them that a bill would eventually arrive for the pornography service.) Some had been thrown off AOL for using vulgar language or provoking fights online. But the one story I will always remember was from a soft-spoken, shy and intelligent boy, with sandy-colored hair. He was a top student, the kind of kid you knew never got into trouble. He raised his hand and confessed to sending out death threats via e-mail. This got my attention quickly.

We talked a bit about his life. He said that he doesn’t get into trouble in “rl” (real life, for us non-geeks). His homework is turned in on time, and he comes straight home after school and listens to his parents. But he sends out death threats online. When I probed more, he said that he would never do anything wrong, because he’s afraid of getting caught and getting into trouble. He also likes being a “good kid.”

He thought that it might be fun to act out his fantasies online. He also was convinced that he couldn’t get caught. When I asked him why he did it, he said simply, “Because I can.” He is a good kid. He’s the kind of kid that you’d want your children to be friends with, the one we refer to when we say “Why can’t you be more like...?” He never forgets to say please or thank you. He’d never dream of threatening anyone offline. But online he’s not a well-mannered honors student. Online he’s the tough and violent kid he always fantasized about being. He plays at being someone else. It’s the cyberspace version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And he does it from the safety of his bedroom, after his homework is finished.

The only problem is that when a death threat arrives via e-mail, the recipient doesn’t know that this innocuous honors student sent it—to the recipient, it’s a serious threat. It’s also a serious threat when law enforcement traces him to his house and knocks on the door.

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