Archives for posts with tag: social media

On Monday evening, I was invited to speak about digital safety to a group of parents of 8th graders at a local high school. It was a great group of people, energetic, informed and enthusiastic about keeping their kids safe. They had so many questions, we ended up staying some time after the session was supposed to end.

It was abundantly clear that many of them were concerned. And somewhat at a loss for how to implement some of my recommendations with their 13 and 14-year-olds.

I understand that. Ideally, we should begin introducing these rules when they log on to their first Club Penguin or Webkinz account in elementary school. I had a harsh lesson in setting up Internet safety rules early: my then 5-year-old typed “Elmo” into a YouTube search at a friend’s house three years ago, and saw some homemade video with a puppet murder scene that left her with nightmares for months.

It’s one thing if they grow up knowing that mom and/or dad need to give permission to set up accounts on websites, that parents need access to all passwords until it’s decided they are responsible and mature enough to earn their privacy, that they must never, ever clear the history from their Internet browsers. It’s all about leaving traces to prove where they’ve been and what they are doing.

But introducing this rule for the first time at 13? Yikes. I can only imagine the moaning and groaning. A number of parents in the room were clearly anticipating the battles that lay ahead of them when they went home to announce this new policy.

But there is no shortcut. It needs to be done.

I compared it to driving a car. We would never imagine handing the keys to our car to a 14-year-old. They are too young, too inexperienced, too immature to handle the responsibility. Possibly they are not even physiologically capable yet — their legs may be too short to reach the brake and gas pedals. They might hurt themselves or others, or cause damage. And yet we don’t always question the wisdom of allowing our kids to make use of the incredibly powerful, public communication tools that exist online, often without any adult supervision at all. There can still be damange; people can get very hurt.

This brings me to one particularly interesting question brought up at the meeting. One parent asked about spying software available to record keystrokes or copy the browser history, even if your devious teenager finds a way to erase it. Basically, he wanted to know if it’s OK to spy on your kids.

My answer? It depends.

Ideally, we don’t want to spy on them. But privacy is not a sacred right when you are 13 or 14 years old. It is a privilege that has to be earned by showing consistent responsibility. Possibly your 16 or 17-year-old has demonstrated they don’t need their Internet activity closely monitored anymore. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a single 12-year-old with the judgement skills to go it alone.

Instead of spying, start off by involving your kids in the supervision. Link their Facebook accounts to your email to start with, so that you get notifications of friend requests, pictures posted and messages. Instead of sitting around reading them, have your kid show you their home feed and profile every once in a while. Ask to look at their email in boxes. There are some fabulous conversations waiting to be had. This isn’t a lecture, it’s a discussion. Big difference. Ask them what they think of language being used, pictures being tagged. You’ll get some really interesting insights into their world.

You should check their browser histories from time to time, but you can do that with them too. I have no problem with a look at their histories without them, but that shouldn’t be the only way you do it.

Is it ever OK to spy? To log in using their passwords when they are not around? Absolutely. If you think your child is in trouble, if you are concerned about recent behaviour, possible depression, cyberbullying (whether they are victim or perpetrator), drugs, sexual health issues or violence. If your motivation is one of genuine concern for your minor child or someone they may be hurting, and your intrusion is as respectful as possible, then you should disregard the usual respect for privacy.

Has your child ever lied about their activity online? Have they set up a safe, dummy account for you to check, then surreptitiously set up another for them to engage freely with friends? That’s fraudulent. That’s a fast-track to having privileges revoked and strict rules put into place. That’s when you may need to do some poking around. Some benevolent monitoring.

What I’m saying is, that’s when you need to do some spying.

Moreover, this is a rule that should be established with them when they are young enough to listen, so if the day comes that you log in with their passwords to their account, they cannot say “How could you do this?”

Who am I kidding? They will definitely say that. Guaranteed. Probably quite loudly.  But now you have an iron-clad response: we may have to do this to keep them safe.


Parenting in the new millenium – these is the kind of question no one needed to ask ten years ago.

There were fewer grey areas in the student-teacher relationship back then. Exchanging telephone numbers was clearly inappropriate. A thank you note dropped in the office mailbox was fine, as was waving hello in the local shopping mall food court. Aside from the occasional incident or rumour, it was pretty straightforward.

Social media changed things. It blurred the conventional methods of communication, making everything seem much less formal.  These new rules weren’t written yet, and relying on common sense wasn’t always particularly helpful but people mostly seemed to figure it out. Or maybe not.

A new law passed in Missouri makes it illegal for teachers to be friends with their students on any social network that allows private communication. This would include Facebook or Twitter. The idea behind the law, quite predictably, is to protect children and teens from predatory adults, but critics worry the law might actually prevent kids at risk from reaching out to trusted adults who could actually offer support.

It seems to me this is actually a much more complicated issue than the panicky rhetoric indicates. I never friended my students when I was a university faculty member, not because I worried about any risk I might pose to them or they to me, but because there are still meaningful divides between our private lives and our public lives. I didn’t need them to see my posts and photos of my kids any more than I wanted to know more than they cared to share in class or in conversation about their relationship woes, parties or trips to New York.

As my kids would say, it’s a case of TMI (too much information).

I don’t think I’m being naive or old-fashioned when I say that line between public and private is still meaningful. The line itself may shift with the times, but it’s still important, whether it’s between adults in a college classroom or kids and teachers in a high school. I had no issues with being contacts on LinkedIn (they were young adults counting on me for professional references, after all) or using email and the telephone to keep in touch. And after the semesters ended and students moved on, there were always a few who kept in touch and gradually crossed the line towards friendship.

But I don’t know many teachers of children and teens who cross that line. And I worry about making these things into confusing new laws. The Missouri bill specifically bans teachers from friending current and former students – does that mean students who’ve graduated are always off-limits? Can’t we just assume that most teachers and most parents will be on top of this? We never legislated teachers phoning their students’ cell phones. We haven’t worried about them texting each other. We didn’t make it illegal for them to send each other holiday cards (though I’m guessing few ever do).

So no, I don’t think your teen should be Facebook friends with their teachers, for all of these reasons and more. This should be a part of every school and school board’s media policy.  And general common sense about this would benefit from discussion and awareness-raising. This is a case where the adults involved really should know better. After all, they are protecting both themselves and their students.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject, whatever your perspective. Feel free to comment here or message me directly.

Immediate. Spontaneous. Concurrent.

Everything in real-time. In order to understand how our kids experience the world, we need to understand this real-time reflex.

Real time in media isn’t a terribly new idea. Films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1949), 12 Angry Men (1957), and the amazing Run Lola Run (1998) follow events they occur in the same time frame as the movie. It’s a technique also seen recently in television shows like 24 and Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals. You see it in YouTube videos, video games (such as Prince of Persia, Animal Crossing, Nintendogs).

But beyond mere entertainment, real-time means we’ve become accustomed to using our media as a literal window on the world. We think nothing of news that shows us things as they are happening: wars, revolutions, natural disasters and political intrigue. We demand — and expect — access to our politicians and celebrities on a constant, regular and intimate basis. We put regular folks with conveniently placed cellphone cameras who happen to be in the right place in the right time on the same par as CNN journalists. We’ve also turned the camera back on the Internet itself, watching the conversations people are having online into news (see CBSNews’ What’s Trending)

Our kids are growing up in a world where the minutiae of the everyday is blogged and posted on Facebook or Twitter or Foursquare. They know what their friends had for breakfast, where they are at this very minute and whether they are having a fight with their boyfriend. We adults may complain and worry about how this redefines privacy and trivializes intimacy, but that’s a moot point for them. This is the new normal.

Immediacy also means they see their pictures as soon as they take them, and have them instantly uploaded on their preferred social media tool. It means they know their SAT scores and marks as quickly as possible. It means that when they gamble, they prefer quick rounds of poker or scratch lottery cards to those weekly draws. It means that shopping has become a social media experience (check out Pose, Where to Get It and VIZL).

The real-time reflex means social interaction gets pared down to its bare bones. We used to accept a phone call in place of a formal face-to-face meeting as a time saver. Then email whittled down the social niceties of a phone call or formal letter even further. But our kids don’t often waste their time on emails or phone calls – everything is reduced to the shorthand of a text message. No greetings or sign-offs. No signatures or “how are you’s?” Just “lmk” and “ttyl” and “lmao.”

This isn’t meant as a critique, but simply an observation. It helps us understand how to parent and teach our kids more effectively. We don’t always have to adapt to this real-time reflex, but it can help us understand the cadence of their daily lives. You might you get faster and more helpful messages from your teen about where they are and what they are doing if you text them instead of calling their cellphones. And you might gain some insight into their stressors and anxieties by understanding how their lives are played out in real-time on social media.

What does that mean anyway? And why should you care?

A social media policy means the school (or board) is thinking proactively about what their students, teachers and staff are doing online. It means they are thinking through the guidelines for acceptable behaviour, safety and accountability. Some schools just ban social media (like Facebook) outright, but increasingly schools and school boards are realizing that they need to actively teach how to manage this important form of communication instead of sticking their heads in the sands and hoping it will all just…. go away.

Why should you care? Because your child will benefit from learning about social media from someone other than their friends (and maybe you). Because social media can be used in all sorts of creative, productive, exciting and challenging ways (not just to comment on what your friends are wearing). Because knowing how to use these tools effectively will certainly be a part of their future.

I spent the morning attending a meeting with the digital awareness committee at Trafalgar School for Girls, and I was so impressed by their creativity and forward-thinking. They have drafted a clear and comprehensive policy that emphasizes respect and safety. As we discussed a number of possible ways to stimulate and maintain a dialogue about social media with students, staff and parents, certain things emerged as particularly important:

  • Student involvement: giving them a voice and the power to get involved means they will be more likely to buy in.
  • Educating parents: parents need to know what this is all about, how it fits into what we know about adolescent development, and how they need to be involved.
  • Understanding how technology has changed what it means to be a teenager: sure, websites and apps like Facebook, Skype and Viber are cool, but they also introduce all sorts of new stressors. For today’s kids, the camera is always on. They spend hours cultivating and maintaining their digital personas. Old boundaries of privacy are not respected. Hateful and hurtful comments that would have been tossed out in the schoolyard and quickly forgotten are now hyper-public and enduring online. The usual adolescent anxieties around self-esteem and identity development are magnified — the stakes for every interaction have gotten higher.
  • Try to see past the panic: with each new technological leap, we tend to panic about what this will mean for our children, how it will destroy the moral fabric of our society, and how it will corrupt our girls and women (See Carolyn Marvin’s brilliant book, When Old Technologies Were New). I don’t mean to underplay the serious challenges we face, but we need to also maintain a clear vision of the fabulous opportunities these technologies open up for us.

There’s certainly a lot to think about, but this meeting with a group of bright, involved educators and parents left me feeling particularly optimistic.

This fabulous article from Common Sense Media (one of my favourite non-profit sites for frank reviews of movies, TV shows, books and music for kids and teens) tracks one woman’s efforts to figure out what information is given away when her 12-year-old daughter plays and does homework online.

Christina Tynan-Wood writes about her decision to allow her pre-teen to have an account on Facebook, despite that site’s policy of only allowing those 13 and over to legally open an account. She isn’t alone – it’s an issue I’ve struggled with as well. Like Tynan-Wood, I felt that saying no to Facebook had a social impact for my twin daughters. And as I discuss in this article, allowing them on the social media website with strict rules and supervision meant I could help them make sense of it while they were young enough to still listen to their mom.  According to Consumer Reports, 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13. 

One practical impact of the parental decision to allow our kids on Facebook is the massive amount of information these (and other) sites are able to collect about their activities online. 

It’s the social networking sites, though, that give me the most pause. It might not seem like a big deal: She installs a silly app, plays a game, “LOLs” on photos, posts a picture, announces what she’s doing, creates a fake job, and “marries” her classroom crush. She’s having a blast.

But the apps aren’t really free. She often “pays” for them by allowing access to her — and sometimes her friends’ — profiles. Add this to the information that she and her friends willingly provide, even the fact that they’re friends, and collect it all into a dossier, and you’d have quite a portrait of my little girl and her crew. The companies that collect this data claim that they never connect this information to individuals, and Facebook prohibits app makers from transmitting data to outside companies — but large breaches have happened.

And what happens when my baby isn’t a baby anymore? Will “the machine” have created a detailed analysis by then of what sort of employee, insurance risk, or student she’ll be? Will it understand that she was playing around when she claimed to work at IHOP? Will it know that the girls didn’t understand what it meant when they called each other prostitutes? Will it strip these games of context, feed it to a database as fact, and sell it to credit companies, insurance agencies, employers, colleges, marketing firms, or the highest bidder? That sounds paranoid. But there have been so many mistakes, break-ins, breaches, and accidents in the world of data collection that the CEO of Sony recently announced publicly that he can’t guarantee the security of Sony’s video game network or any other Web system in the “bad new world” of cybercrime.

These are really important questions. We tend to be kind of laid-back about it because we can’t really see it happening on the surface, but the sheer amount of information collected about our kids is staggering. How will this affect them when they are 25? 40? The answer is we don’t really know. But clearly crossing our fingers and hoping for the best isn’t the best reaction.

The first response is awareness, among both parents and their kids. The second is education. How can we fine tune our security settings and firewalls? What kinds of information should never be given out online? How can we stay on top of the information about us and our children that is out there on the web? These are important questions to have with your kids from the time they are old enough to open their first Club Penguin or Moshi Monsters account. These are some of the questions I’ll be looking at in depth in future posts, and I welcome any comments or suggestions from readers.

This past fall semester, I taught a course at  Concordia called Youth and Media. My students were mostly 2nd and 3rd year university students, roughly between the ages of 20 and 22. Although we had plenty of interesting discussions about music, copyright infringement, video games and mobile phones, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that for them, Youth and Media meant one thing: Facebook.

The stories they told to illustrate their points were not always upsetting, but those that were drew sympathetic gasps and nods from their classmates: house parties that had quickly gotten out of control, misunderstood postings that led to hurt feelings, cyber-bullying and romantic entanglements.

But what quickly emerged from this group of young adults was the fact that Facebook and other social media (MySpace, Friendster, etc.) had become both social conduits and social currency. That means that they used Facebook to communicate to each other, but also to establish their social positions in a group of friends.  Whereas a text message between friends can transmit information, it’s generally just between those people; when something gets posted on your Facebook wall, it’s also a kind of performance. This is what theorist Sherry Turkle calls The Second Self – creating the virtual person that is your reflection online. We’ll revisit this idea in future postings.

In other words, almost all of their social interactions, friendships, romantic relationships, important life events and communication tended to get filtered through these media. This can be true for adults as well as teens, but since establishing one’s identity is a big pre-occupation for adolescents, it happens more with those under 18. Meeting a friend for lunch? Post it on Facebook. Get a new haircut? Ditto. Parties and even informal get-togethers tend to be oriented around the cellphone cameras that will capture images and post them online. In fact, my students told me they had once tried an “unplugged party” – no camera phones, no posting of anything online — and it felt really strange. One young woman told me that life with Facebook  means “you feel you are always performing to the camera.”

What does this have to do with risk? Quite a bit, actually.

Facebook (and other social media) tend to be places where risky activities converge (to repurpose a tech term). That means that teens who are drunk, car surfing, smoking or passed out in a puddle of their own vomit tend to either post about it or capture each other on camera and post them online. Youtube in particular is full of videos of teens doing all sorts of high-risk activities and posting them for posterity. It’s gotten to the point where it’s hard to talk to teens about prevention without being aware that for adolescents, the performance of cool or daring is often more important than the thing itself. And that’s where technology can add to the risk.

Another way the Internet can add to the risk is by radically expanding the communities of influence teens to which teens are exposed, and by providing them with triggers to try high-risk activities. These include pro-anorexia and pro-cutting websites, videos and images of kids high on all sorts of substances. When one of my older daughters went online to look for information on hallucinogenic drugs for a school project, she found many more videos of kids getting high than those with any kind of educational or preventative angle.

So what does all this mean for our pre-teens and teens? Banning them from these sites would be pointless, but it would also miss the opportunity to teach them responsible use. My position is that with younger teens, tapering off as they demonstrate responsible behaviour, is the way to go. Of course, this all depends on each kid, since different levels of supervision may be necessary in different cases.

I’m putting together a posting on guidelines and best practices, but would welcome stories and suggestions from your own experience.