August 20, 2008

In the Public Eye ; Some See Risks in Youngsters Creating Blogs

NEW YORK - On her blog, 12-year-old Tavi Gevinson posts photos of herself wielding a toilet plunger, posing in a room covered with newsprint and wearing a paint-splattered tutu inspired by Dolce & Gabbana's spring 2008 collection.

She's part of a young generation of fashion bloggers who display their outfits for all to see. "Well I am new here," she wrote March 31 in her first post at Style Rookie. "Lately I've been really interested in fashion, and I like to make binders and slideshows of 'high-fashion' modeling and designs."

To some wary adults, she's in a world where she doesn't belong. Unlike a typical social network page, a blog can be seen by anyone and at least one young fashion blogger says she's been recognized by strangers on the street - a worrisome turn for adults worried about privacy and predators.

For the bloggers, it's a chance to keep track of their obsession, with input from friends or other fashion fans.

"I just kind of wanted to document my outfits, and it was just a random thing that wasn't in relation to anything," said Brooke Kao, the Washington-based blogger of The Fashion Void That Is DC. Ms. Kao recently turned 18, but she was 16 when she started writing posts about what she wore.

The Internet exposure concerns advocates such as Parry Aftab, a lawyer who runs the online protection site

"Parents have no idea what their kids are doing online," she said. "Most parents have no idea what a blog is."

Though the federal government requires extra protection for Internet users who are younger than 13, not every Web site follows the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Ms. Aftab notes that the social networking site was fined $1 million in 2006 after being accused of allowing preteens to create accounts without informing their parents.

Some young bloggers are taking their own steps to protect their privacy. Ms. Kao crops her face from photos, while 16-year-old Stephanie Ullman erased an early blog because too many kids at her school found it.

"I'm not a very private person," she said. "I share a lot of information to people, I guess more than I probably should. But I just felt that I didn't want the people who are very close to me reading it, because I guess I'm embarrassed about my writing sometimes."

It's that sharing of information with strangers that concerns Addie Swartz, the CEO of the media company B-tween Productions and a mother of two teenage daughters. Her company is launching a special social networking site for girls ages 9 to 12 because Ms. Swartz felt kids need "a safe place that lets them try out Facebook" without giving them opportunities to post personal data that blogs allow.

"I believe it's a great outlet if you're older and more mature, but you are opening yourself up to the world, and you have to be prepared for that," Ms. Swartz said. "I personally feel that it's not safe to have a child who's 12 or 13 have a blog, and I wouldn't want my kids to do that."

Although Ms. Aftab isn't against blogging, she is worried about some photos the girls post and the potential for cyber-bullying.

"You are what you post online," she said. "Are you posing in a more provocative way? Is it how you want to be remembered when your next boyfriend sees it or your future mother-in-law sees it or your tuition scholarship person's going to review you for Dartmouth?"

Ms. Kao started cropping her face from photos at her parents' request when her sister told them about the blog. She also blurs the names and faces of family or friends who show up in her photos.

Tavi's dad, Steve Gevinson, wasn't fully aware that she was blogging until she asked for permission to appear in a New York Times magazine story on the subject.

"I may have known, but to me it was a kind of a non-thing to know," the high school English teacher said from his home in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb.

Style Rookie became an issue in late July when New York Magazine's fashion blog questioned Tavi's age, dissecting her precocious fashion sense and sophisticated taste in music. The resulting comments ranged from suspicious to nasty, with one reader claiming, "Anyone who actually believes she is 12 is an absolute idoit (sic)."

The Gevinsons were asleep at their vacation house in Michigan when Tavi checked her e-mail and found the post.

"She slept in the bed with us that night to get back to sleep," Mr. Gevinson said. The next night, "She woke up, and again woke us up, and said - and this is really heartbreaking - 'I just woke up crying and I don't even know why I'm crying.'"

Such negative responses are the reason why children shouldn't be blogging, Ms. Swartz says.

"Whoever may comment and whatever feedback you may get - girls are very impressionable, especially girls in this age that we're ... talking about," she said.

But Mr. Gevinson thinks kids are stronger than parents believe.

"I have a lot of confidence in (Tavi) and in most kids, if not all kids, that they can figure it out if they have good guidance and caring people working with them," he said.

After taking a short break, Tavi has returned to blogging with her father's blessing.

Originally published by Associated Press.

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