The MySpace scandal at Mankato East Senior High School exploded from an older piece of technology, the telephone.
A parent called the principal, Don Poplau, and asked him if he'd seen the photos of kids from his school on MySpace. The photos showed students drinking and smoking. Poplau investigated, and later suspended two students from extracurricular activities.
Students were furious. What right, they asked, did school officials have to go online and view their personal Web pages?
Poplau says he had every right.
"We're not on a witch hunt," Poplau says. "We don't go out and purposely look for those things. And we more or less respond to allegations, or if someone makes an accusation then we follow up on it. But we are not hiding behind computers or hiding out at the mall trying to catch kids do bad things."
School suspension is just one risk taken by teenagers who post photos personal information on the Web. A few weeks ago a 34-year old Indiana man was charged with convincing a 15-year old Fargo girl to take sexual photos of herself. They met on Xanga.com, another social networking site. Others include FaceBook, Friendster and LiveJournal.com.
Norah Paul, director of the Institute of New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota, says teenagers tend to believe these very public sites are meant for a limited audience.
The social networking sites do have security measures that posters can use to limit the audience. But she says most teens do not learn how to do it. Paul says they do not think about the long or short-term implications of their postings.
"There was a profile of a student who was running for vice president of the student body at Missouri in the FaceBook," Paul says. "And it included a picture of her duct-taped to a chair, with a beer bong down her throat. So after the newspaper broke the story about the picture on the profile she put up, she pulled out of the race."
When a teenager posts provocative photos or other material, Paul says they are more vulnerable. But she cautions against parents being anxious about these sites. Paul says the media tend to over-report the dangers, and under-report the benefits. Teenagers are busy establishing identities on blogs and network sites, she says.
Alicia Gramling is a college student in Beloit, Wisconsin. The college's admissions department hired her to maintain a biweekly blog about her life on campus as part of the school's recruitment campaign.
This is the start of one entry: "Boom! Crash! Yup, that's how I woke up this morning to a thunderstorm. Yeah, that's right, in Wisconsin, in mid-February. It is sleeting, slash snowing slash raining."
Gramling's online identity is her selling point both personally and professionally. She says she hangs out with her friends online, but the work for the college has made her more conscientious about what she posts. She doesn't write much about her boyfriend or the parties she attends.
Instead, she puts that information on her Facebook account. She limits it to about 300 people because she fears some strange guy might be looking for young women.
Nonetheless, Gramling doesn't think adults should be trolling MySpace and Facebook looking for illegal activity or suggestive photos. And even if they did, that would not necessarily stop her from posting.
The U of M's Norah Paul says it is unlikely any adult interference will stop kids from finding new ways to interact online.
"The desire to be known and to be heard and to connect is strong, and kids are going to do it," she says. "And any attempts to stop that, I think, are futile."
Sitting across from one another at the dining room table in their Minneapolis home, Melissa Summers and Charles Robinson have their laptops open.
They have been chatting with people online for 25 years. The two met on the bulletin boards that pre-dated the Internet. They later married, and now have two Internet-savvy children. Charles Robinson says these social networking Web sites have an impossible logic.
"It's really a strange dynamic -- the idea of having a diary or a journal online accessible to the world, where there are only two people who shouldn't read it," Robinson says. "But that's really how we've treated it. Our daughter's had a live journal for what, six years? And it's one place we don't tread."
Melissa Summers says she's thought about monitoring her kids' online activity, but she trusts them to make good choices.
"I remember as a kid being booted out of the house after breakfast in the summertime, and being told to be home for dinner. You just don't see that happening anymore," says Summers. "Parents are much more freaky about being, I think, over-protective of their kids, and controlling and structuring their children from wake up to bedtime. And maybe it's the only place some kids can feel they have control over their lives. But they haven't been taught how to make independent choices, and so they're at risk."
Their son Casey, 15, sits in the basement where the family computers hum. Casey says he spends about three to four hours online each day. He plays Teen Ninja, and posts on forums. He says he also cruises MySpace to check out his friends and other people's writing.
"Some of the poetry out there is more easily mocked than others," he says. "And at times I will have a private laugh at them. Private? I don't post comments saying, 'Your poetry is horrible, and by extension so are you.'"
Casey Robinson says he rarely puts personal information online, saying it scares him that a nutcase could find it. His father doesn't know where he gets that idea. He puts all sorts of personal information on his own Web site. But Casey is adamant.
At the same time, Casey says his MySpace account, forum messages and instant message logs are private. He'd be angry if his parents read these things.
"It's public to my friends. Information that I'll share with my friends is not always the same as information that I'll share with my parents or with my teachers. And I think they know where the border is," Robinson says.
The U of M's Norah Paul says as oblivious as some teens are, for most people it's a safe place that allows them to grow up.
"I'd hate to have big brother, big mother, big principal go in and ruin one of the last bastions, or one of the first bastions, where kids can go and have control of their space," Paul says.
As for concerns that beer bong photos will haunt a teen to her Supreme Court nomination, Paul says they could. But she adds most people don't give personal details found on the Web much credence.
Data from the Society for Human Resource Management indicates currently only 8 percent of employers are doing background checks on the Internet. But more companies have started reviewing blogs and personal sites over the last five years. They're looking for details that reveal whether an employee is "the right fit."
So, Norah Paul says, think before you post.