Several online "crushes" pages have cropped up locally in the last week, displaying a new aspect of online social interaction among teens that has raised red flags with adults.
In the Facebook pages, student crushes that are submitted anonymously get posted publicly. With each submission, which name students specifically, have come concerns of sexualizing and objectifying teens without their permission, making them targets for bullying or vulnerable to online predators. Facebook, the popular social media site, launched in 2004 and now has more than 1 billion users worldwide.
The pages appear to have been created starting Feb. 19 with Wa-Hi Crushes, which had more than 1,100 "likes" as of Monday night. The Wa-Hi page was followed a few days later by Pi-Hi Crushes, geared for Pioneer Middle School students, and a Garrison Crushes page for Garrison Middle School. The middle school pages each had just over 100 "likes" before they were taken down Monday night.
A similar site for McLoughlin High School in Milton-Freewater, called Mac-Hi Crushes, had almost 400 likes Monday. The site appears to have been temporarily taken down, relaunched and taken down again.
On some of the sites, crushes are sent to a social media site called Ask.fm, where users answer questions or respond to commentary sent to them anonymously.
"Do not post on here, but post on http://ask.fm/machicrushes as anonymous, I will then post your crushes/compliments on the page," read the About section of Mac-Hi Crushes, adding: "Please be nice!! Also, if you don't want anything posted about you just message me and I will take it down."
Wa-Hi Crushes follows a similar model using Ask.fm, and states that anyone who doesn't want to be called out as a crush can request to have the mention removed. Some other pages set up email addresses to submit crushes, or ask for crushes to come in as private Facebook messages.
"I think the idea of the page is good," wrote Jocelyn Harwood in reply to a negative post on Mac-Hi Crushes. "Giving people compliments is nice even if you have to do it through a computer screen. This page makes people laugh and smile. As long as its controlled i don't see anything wrong with it."
But while the sites celebrate particular students' smiles, personalities or other positive traits, they carry the potential to highlight individuals more crassly. The Pi-Hi Crushes page in particular drew the attention and concern of several parents for its more vulgar and aggressive submissions.
"This site, primarily used by LEGALLY MINOR CHILDREN, exists to objectify the opposite sex and promote sexual harassment and promiscuity," wrote Gina Baltrusch in a Facebook post about the Pi-Hi site. "Such behavior should be discouraged and adult intervention taken when involving minors, particularly when conducted in a public forum."
Parents reacted Monday by contacting schools from Walla Walla to Milton-Freewater. The Pi-Hi Crushes page was the first to come down Monday afternoon, and was soon followed by the Garrison page. Mac-Hi's page eventually disappeared online, but the Wa-Hi page remains, and a new page grouping all the schools has appeared -- but with nowhere near the following of the previous pages, with under 100 "likes."
Milton-Freewater School District Interim Superintendent Jim Reger said the district became aware of the pages through parents, and administrators were actively researching their options to take the sites down.
"Unfortunately we don't have control of the website," he said. "We are doing research to see what we can do."
Reger said the district would also be getting in touch with Pioneer Middle School to see what routes officials took to take down their page.
"Our struggle will be, do we have the right to have it taken down," Reger said. He said there could also be outreach with students to discuss the negative aspects and consequences of the sites.
"It's just not appropriate," he said about the public online commentary.
Walla Walla Public Schools Superintendent Mick Miller provided the following comment Tuesday morning: "While the use of social media brings many positive elements to communications and our lives, it also has the potential to cause great harm. Although this situation is out of our control, it impacts our students in a profound way. It is imperative for parents to monitor their son or daughter's use of social media in a world where personal information is shared so freely."
On online comments, some adults were trying to give students the benefit of the doubt with the more moderate pages geared for older students.
"While I think this page is trouble, kids are going to be kids," wrote Heather Usko on the Wa-Hi Crushes page.
"What I do hope is that the moderator of this page is responsible enough to know the difference between a compliment and a derogatory remark. You all want to keep this page up? Make sure you moderate this page successfully and let all know that there will be NO TOLERANCE for crude sexual remarks about the students of Wa-Hi...or any other school for that matter. You want your parents to treat you as young adults? Prove to them that you have a good head on your shoulders and do this right."
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