08/16/2007 11:54 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Putting The 'Community' Into Online Communities For Teens

Yesterday a production assistant for a national talk show got in touch to ask if I would be interested in talking about teen pro-ana or mia sites. It turned out they changed the topic (to "Rainbow parties" and kids who make "cheese" by mixing Tylenol PM and heroin), so I don't think I'll be going. Separately, I ran across this post over at Tech Crunch the other day about a prescription drug company's MySpace page designed to help people prevent or deal with prescription drug addiction. Kind of like the tobacco companies' anti-smoking sites. This made me think back to the recent article in USA Today about how teens are talking about drug use online, sharing good times, recovery stories and of course, where to get them (oh, they talk about sex online, too, a lot).

Since I began promoting Totally Wired this past spring, I've been thinking a lot about both the potential of the internet as well as the dark side for teens. Danah boyd often refers to the internet as a "virtual public." It's a reflection of offline public life with all of the messiness human nature brings to that picture. Some of this messiness is amplified due to the viral nature of the web and the difficulty of taking something down once it spreads. This often plays out in more extreme cases of cyberbullying, i.e. "The Star Wars Kid." The power to connect with so many more people online than you can locally in the physical world also presents both opportunities and challenges. It has been a boon for social change activists, but it has also made connecting around self destructive behaviors like eating disorders and cutting easier, too. And, when it comes to which teens are engaging with online predators, we"ve learned recently that it tends to be teens who have been victimized in the past or who are having lots of other problems or issues. They're looking for adult attention and validation in whatever form it comes.

Where I'm attempting to go with this post is that these "virtual publics" or social networking sites are communities full of real people (many of them teenagers) with real issues. There are brilliant people on the technology side spending all day thinking about how they can make their communities stickier, bigger, and more profitable through code. But when it comes to the issues I've been blogging about in this post (and many others), the response has been the obligatory footer link about "how to be safe" on these sites, a link for parents, or traditional PSAs that run occasionally during teen shows and have an information heavy microsite that nobody will ever visit.

If we've learned anything about what works online, it's that it has to be contextual. I think this is an issue non-profits and industry can work together on -- baking in contextual resources and support into large social networks and virtual worlds. It's also something I guarantee you that people (especially teens) within these communities will volunteer to help with. The idea is that when you're setting up a profile and you identify as a teen or enter a trigger word like "ana" or "mia," some sort of messaging comes up to alert you that there are resources and support within the community. Maybe it links to an area full of .org hotlines, MySpace pages, confidential chat, etc. I know an excellent programmer could come up with an elegant solution. I also think there could be an anonymous way for community members to report profiles of other members who seem like they are in trouble -- talking about suicide, addiction, hurting others, etc. There would be criteria you would fill out when you report it, and a psychologist would review it and either reach out to that person with a supportive message and an appropriate resource. It's the same concept of outreach workers who go and talk to runaways or homeless youth on the street.

Just as there is a network of non-profits and agencies designed to help teens in the real world, we need to work with the companies behind these social networking sites and virtual worlds to replicate it online -- we can't leave this work to pharmaceutical companies with an ulterior motives or relegate it to a footer link. I'm not sure how to make this happen, but I'm putting it out there with the hope that someone will.