Babes in the Woods

Anybody could be tracking your children online. Even me.
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MySpace has more than 100 million members and an unknown number of unregistered lurkers. Last spring, I became one of the latter. The site seemed hopelessly confusing at first, so to get started, I went to the search box and typed in the name of the high school closest to my house. It’s the best girls’ school in Los Angeles, with a walled and beautiful campus. As soon as I entered the name, the profiles of several girls popped up, and I clicked on the first one, a girl I’ll call “Jenna.” (Protecting her identity seems at once important and ridiculous: I am taking pains to make private information that she has taken pains to make public.)

I could tell in a minute that this was no fake profile. I taught at a Los Angeles private school for many years, and the associations and places to which she made reference were all of a piece—at once too prosaic and too specific to be fabricated. She was a nice girl, you could tell that right away: Her profile picture showed her in a bikini at the beach, but it wasn’t posed or self-consciously provocative. There were pictures from all kinds of parties and from trips to Disneyland and the Santa Monica Pier, and she had a steady boyfriend who posted to her page all the time, as well as a group of friends and family members who clearly thought the world of her. As I read her messages (especially the charming ones between her and her boyfriend, who had moved from “best friend” to “lover” status over the course of many sweet and well-documented months), I felt guilty, as though I were looking at things I shouldn’t have been, as though I were lingering at a doorway, overhearing something private. And yet all of them were posted in a place that was designed not just to allow me in but to welcome me.

In that moment, the reality of my new life on the far side of a generation gap hit me fully. My fundamental understanding of privacy—the notion that one shouldn’t listen in on the personal conversations of others—marked me as old. I’m not old because I like to peek into people’s private lives; I’m old because I feel guilty about it. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that—merely by trolling slowly and patiently through her pictures and conversations and lists of favorite things—I had become predatory. Dwelling secretly in the private life of a beautiful young girl seemed inherently sinister, and I had to remind myself, over and over, that I was doing nothing wrong.

Because I’m the mom of two preteens growing up in a social milieu not so different from Jenna’s, her MySpace page was a comfort to me. Her friends were nice, their pursuits and pleasures were wholesome enough (much more wholesome than what my friends and I were up to a quarter century ago), and her boyfriend was pure gold—a stalwart encourager of her studies, a champion of her parents and family whose own MySpace photo was a picture of the two of them. And because I’m someone who loves to read about the day-to-day nature of people’s lives, the page was very interesting to me. But if I were the kind of person who regards beautiful teenage girls—especially cloistered ones from good families—as objects of irresistible erotic desire, I would not have been comforted or merely “interested”; I would have been excited, perhaps unbearably so.

The current resurgence of girls’ schools like Jenna’s is based on the idea that to become strong and powerful, girls need an environment in which they are protected from the various energies and appetites of adolescent boys. Free of the sexually charged atmosphere that will always pervade coed high schools, they can emerge and evolve in ways they never could in the presence of ogling, domineering boys. What contemporary parents of daughters—among them some of the most liberal-minded—have come to believe is not so different from what 19th-century parents believed: The sexual unfolding of a young girl is such a fraught process emotionally as well as physically that she needs to be carefully sheltered from the myriad forces that would seek to exploit or coarsen her as she reconciles the girl that she was with her biological destiny. That Jenna’s parents would pour such a river of cash into her school tuition to grant her that safe and gentle place, and that—at the cost of not one cent—she would have created a MySpace page so dangerously revealing (in every sense of the word) is a terrific irony.

In the middle of Jenna’s profile was a calendar relentlessly ticking down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until graduation, which was a little more than a week away. I glanced up from the computer screen, through the scrim of leafy branches and out in the general direction of the school, startled by the realization that Jenna—this person I had never heard of 20 minutes before and about whose intimate life I now knew quite a bit—was a flesh-and-blood human being who was at that moment sitting in a building a few blocks away. I minimized the MySpace page on my screen and typed the name of Jenna’s school into my search engine; the school’s home page had a calendar button, and I clicked on it. I waited for the site to ask me for a password, but it didn’t. Up came a complete record of Jenna’s whereabouts for the following week: the exam schedule, the school awards ceremony, the graduation exercises, the faculty-appreciation luncheon.

Just about every kid in the country knows not to post his or her last name or address or phone number on the Internet. The paltry set of facts that I so innocently wrote on my luggage tag so long ago are the only bits of information that kids guard jealously today. What they don’t realize is that when the vast matrix of information easily available on the Internet is cross-referenced to the bountiful data they supply on MySpace, it can lead right to them. You tell me where your daughter goes to school and what sport she plays, and I’ll tell you what day and time she’ll be playing a game in a public park. Look around that park while you’re watching the game—it’s not inconceivable that one of the men there has come to catch a glimpse of a particular girl on the team.

I’m a well-intentioned, busybody mom who’s forever sharing snacks and finding Kleenexes for kids I don’t know. Like most former high-school teachers, I can’t help thinking that whenever there are teenagers in a crowd, they must be on a field trip that I’m chaperoning. Something in my mien and voice must make them think so too—I’ve scolded some pretty tough-looking teenage boys for swearing around my children, and I’ve never received anything other than an embarrassed apology. There couldn’t be any stranger in the world less inclined to cause harm to Jenna than I was—and thank God for that, because when I saw on the school’s Web site that her graduation rehearsal was the following week, I flipped open my calendar and jotted down the day and time.

The day of the rehearsal was glorious, the way days in early June often are in this part of Los Angeles. I wore a pink linen skirt, a white sleeveless top, and a pair of low-heeled leather sandals, and I was so caught up in congratulating myself for approximating so exactly the look of a middle-aged, private-school mom that I had to remind myself that that’s exactly what I am.

At the school, things were hopping: Younger girls were being dismissed, a party-supply truck was delivering hundreds of white folding chairs for the ceremony, a uniformed guard was waving car-pool drivers onto the horseshoe drive in front of the school. I walked down the sidewalk and passed the front gate—something I’ve done literally hundreds of times (I used to live just down the street), but this time my heart was racing. I gave the guard a big, familiar smile, and she nodded and smiled back—she had the look of someone trying to place a familiar face. I kept walking down the block.

I wasn’t sure what I was trying to prove to myself, but it certainly wasn’t that someone like me could slip onto the campus—the school that several of my friends’ children attend and that is my own polling place. I got to the end of the block and turned the corner; I knew the rehearsal was to be held in the field behind the main building, and I was hoping that maybe I could get at least a glimpse of the seniors. And that’s when I heard them: Girls, a lot of them, were laughing and talking, and a teacher—her voice much louder, coming through speakers—was trying to impose some order. A piano played the first notes of something that sounded like a processional march, and it was soon joined by the sweet music of a hundred girls singing: They were preparing for graduation by practicing their alma mater. They started, they stopped, they squealed with laughter. The teacher spoke into the microphone, more sternly this time, and they began again.

But that, you will be relieved to know, was as close as I got: The campus was surrounded by a wall as thick and imposing as any ever built around a school dedicated to the teaching and sheltering of girls. So I stood there feeling foolish, slid my camera back in my purse, and slunk away. The place to meet Jenna (without breaking the law) was not on the walled campus of a private school.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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