I got an email from a parent of a student that I know yesterday that asked what is becoming a pretty common question in today’s day and age:

I am hoping to get some feedback from you about My Space and Facebook. I am soooo illiterate when it comes to the internet lately. Just when I think I’m about to catch up, I realize I’m WAY behind in this area. Patrick may have mentioned to you that his Dad made him close down his My Space page and Face book page.

We have both been aware that he had these going and have talked to him about not posting personal information, however when we did a “spot” check on his My Space page we found his real name, his neighborhood name and what seemed to as an over reacting parent – everything but his social security number.

So, as we parents tend to do most of the time, we freaked and had him close it all down. My question to you is this: Is it common for kids in 6th grade to have a My Space and / or Face book page?

Figured you might be interested in my reply. Heck, if you’re working in a school with preteens—or teenagers for that matter—I’m sure it’s a question you’ve had to wrestle with as well.

And actually, I’d be interested in what you think of my response. Is this the same advice that you would have given? Why or why not? What would you have changed?

I’m still trying to think through my own approach to introducing kids to Internet safety—and this just happens to be where my thinking stands today:

Hey Mrs. G,

Good to hear from you—and I think you guys did exactly what I would have done primarily because Patrick had given away so much information about himself online. (Besides, I’m not sure, but I’ll bet that the user agreements and terms of conditions in both My Space and Facebook prevent anyone under the age of 16 or 18 from even having a space!)

That’s the trick that many middle schoolers struggle with. They like the connected-ness that sites like My Space and Facebook give them, and honestly, most of the time they’re not doing anything inappropriate on their pages. They’re just connecting with friends in the same way that we would have used phones or met at the playground to connect.

A book I’m reading right now describes online communication sites as “conversations in the food court at the mall.” They’re not really private, but you rarely think about the people who are around you. You know they’re there—but you suspect (rightly so) that they’re not listening. The caution, though, is they could be listening—and you have to be aware of what’s going on in order to protect yourself.

Kids sometimes just don’t recognize that by making themselves as public as they do to their friends in online forums, they’re also making themselves public to the world. They forget that the transparency of the Web makes them transparent to everyone—including people that would choose to do them harm.

Now, the good news is that the incidents of Internet predators are way, way over estimated. Shows like “To Catch a Predator” on Dateline make it seem like every child is at risk every time that they get online.

That’s just not the case.

But I’m a big believer that it’s important for kids to learn the line between public and private lives online—-and that keeping oneself safe means keeping oneself completely anonymous! Unless a child is 18 or older, I’d argue that they should be using pseudonyms in any forum that allows for interactions with others.

It just makes sense—-the less you give away, the safer you are!

I think my greater worry for kids is that they’ll write or post something today that they’ll regret tomorrow. They don’t recognize that anything written or published in a digital format takes on a life of its own. It becomes permanent in so many ways—-People can copy and paste material and continue to send it along to others…websites archive versions of digital content.

That permanence can come back to haunt kids when they’re applying for jobs or colleges….and it can take a hurtful comment made in anger and compound its consequences. Cyber Bullying is often a greater problem than inappropriate content or risky encounters for kids.

Over time, you’ll want to give Patrick a few more opportunities to explore online again. One of the mistakes that parents make is completely shutting down their child’s access to social networking tools/websites, thinking that they’re keeping their kids safe.

Like a lot of digital experts, my friend Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach explains that teaching kids to use digital tools is a lot like teaching them to drive:  Kids need opportunities to practice responsible behavior online, even if it’s risky. They’re going to make mistakes—and sometimes those mistakes may scare us to death—but if we don’t give them opportunities to practice under our watchful eye, they’ll never learn to be responsible on their own.

One of the suggestions that Internet safety experts make all the time is that families of pre-teens and teens should keep the family computer in a public location—the kitchen, the family room—-so that there is always the opportunity for monitoring. While kids flip when they think they don’t have the “space” that their friends get, computers in public locations in the family home decrease the likelihood that kids will engage in risky behavior online.

Now, a few resources for you to explore:

Fear Factor Overblown

Written by teen technology expert Anastasia Goodstein for a PBS blog called Mediashift, this article tackles the sensationalism generated by the Dateline To Catch a Predator series.

As Goodstein writes, “When I set out to write Totally Wired, I wanted to write a book for parents that would be a “voice of reason” in the midst of negative headlines and sensational stories about everything teens do that’s wrong or dangerous online.

I didn’t want to gloss over any of the negative — I talk about cyber-bullying, hooking up, pornography, and blogrings that are pro-anorexia and bulemia. The dark stuff is in there. But so is the reality: Most teens aren’t talking to strangers online. They’re just socializing with the same friends they see in person at school or met at summer camp.”

Real Life Stories

This collection of videos outline a whole range of challenges that children face while working online. Most interesting to you might be the video titled “Tracking Teresa,” which shows just how easy it is to track someone down from the information that they post on the Internet. It’ll probably scare you even more—-but it might convince Patrick that you were right all along!

Know it All for Parents

Quite possibly one of the coolest sites covering Internet saftey, Know It All for Parents is a guide to the Internet designed for parents and teachers, but complete with a section for students as well.

Created by a British charity, this site includes streaming video narration by holograms of adults and students that is fun and interesting to watch. If you’re a student, sit down with your mom and dad and learn a few valuable lessons together!

Hope these resources help as you think through your game plan at home! I might talk about this in class in the next few days as well—-It’s been awhile since we tackled any of these topics and the kids could stand to hear about digital safety from all fronts, right?

Be well,
Bill Ferriter

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