Middle Schoolers and Myspace

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

17 comments

  1. Mark

    Bill, that was an excellent answer; particularly the part about many of the fears being overblown. I write a lot on Internet security issues, including the parent advisory article linked to my name. Parents ask me every day what tools they can buy to keep their child safe online. My stock answer is that the only sure fire tool is an involved parent; preferably one who sits in the family room with the child whenever he or she is on the Internet. My kids are allowed to have MySpace and Facebook and email accounts, but I have to be able to access any of them if I wish. And they can use IM, but the computer is shared by the whole family and sits in the family room. No matter how savvy the kids are, they can’t cover all their tracks, and I occasionally glance at surfing and search histories and cookie files. I’ve never found anything untoward (except when my stunned 7yo mis-typed a URL) and don’t expect to; but if I do, I’ll at least know it’s something they’ve been accessing for days or perhaps weeks, but not months or years.

  2. Mark

    Bill, that was an excellent answer; particularly the part about many of the fears being overblown. I write a lot on Internet security issues, including the parent advisory article linked to my name. Parents ask me every day what tools they can buy to keep their child safe online. My stock answer is that the only sure fire tool is an involved parent; preferably one who sits in the family room with the child whenever he or she is on the Internet. My kids are allowed to have MySpace and Facebook and email accounts, but I have to be able to access any of them if I wish. And they can use IM, but the computer is shared by the whole family and sits in the family room. No matter how savvy the kids are, they can’t cover all their tracks, and I occasionally glance at surfing and search histories and cookie files. I’ve never found anything untoward (except when my stunned 7yo mis-typed a URL) and don’t expect to; but if I do, I’ll at least know it’s something they’ve been accessing for days or perhaps weeks, but not months or years.

  3. Mark

    Bill, that was an excellent answer; particularly the part about many of the fears being overblown. I write a lot on Internet security issues, including the parent advisory article linked to my name. Parents ask me every day what tools they can buy to keep their child safe online. My stock answer is that the only sure fire tool is an involved parent; preferably one who sits in the family room with the child whenever he or she is on the Internet. My kids are allowed to have MySpace and Facebook and email accounts, but I have to be able to access any of them if I wish. And they can use IM, but the computer is shared by the whole family and sits in the family room. No matter how savvy the kids are, they can’t cover all their tracks, and I occasionally glance at surfing and search histories and cookie files. I’ve never found anything untoward (except when my stunned 7yo mis-typed a URL) and don’t expect to; but if I do, I’ll at least know it’s something they’ve been accessing for days or perhaps weeks, but not months or years.

  4. Rose

    FYI, the age cut-off for the internet is typically 13, not 16 or 18. I know little about MySpace, but their privacy policy page says: “The MySpace Website is a general audience site and does not knowingly collect PII from children under 13 years of age.” Probably still older than a sixth-grader though!
    I’m surprised kids this young are using FaceBook. As a Facebook user myself, I’ve seen networks for colleges and high schools, not middle or elementary schools. Also, Facebook is a site that generally “requires” a full name, not a pseudonym, but it also has privacy settings that means others can’t view your profile (or even just sections of your profile). I’m shocked how many people don’t utilize these.
    I agree with what the parents did, but I also think they should help the child figure out how to do it “right” in a supportive, non-punitive way. It also may be worthwhile for the parents to, at least for a few years, search for their child’s name on Google and the top networking sites to see what they get. Not only is this for safety, but also is exactly what some would-be employers may do to find out information about their applicants!

  5. ms_teacher

    my youngest really wanted to connect with his classmates via myspace. I helped him set up his page and have also set my own myspace page where I’ve friended him.
    The caveat to all three of my kids is that I monitor all of their online usage. They know this and so they moderate what they do online.
    I’ve also created a kids account on the family computer. On their account, they cannot go online past a certain time (I have a 16 year old, so the shut off time is 1 a.m. on the week-ends).
    I wish I had more control over what they do on their cellphones! Computer usage is easy to monitor, cell phones not so much.

  6. Matt Montagne

    Hey Bill-
    I think what you’re saying does make sense. And really, I’m not certain there are right and wrong answers on this front. These are uncertain times and I think we move forward with a certain amount of trepidation. There certainly are no hard and fast rules (eg-some middle school students really DO have the maturity and intellectual capacity to be powerful contributors in online communities…others don’t). I think this is doubly complicated by the fact that parents and teachers are late to the party. I’m particularly interested in the parent piece-I think every parent should create a facebook account and start engaging online NOW. They can use facebook to join special interest groups, keep in touch with their friends, and re-connect with old friends–once they do this, they understand the value and can then begin to properly mentor their children instead of police their children.
    I’ve started hosting a series of live, student moderated webcasts. These are 8th grade students with a great deal of maturity and some really interesting things to say. The last episode is posted online here: http://www.webcastacademy.net/node/2049
    In the webcast the students identify themselves with the ir first name. I think it would feel odd, un-natural, and unauthentic to not use our first names.
    Anyway, I’m meandering now…again, these are tricky times with no hard and fast rules.
    Thanks, Bill.
    Matt

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Matt wrote:
    It’s happening right now all over the world…youth are using their real names and engaging in online networks safely and appropriately.
    This is an interesting strand of conversation for me because I would love nothing more than to have my kids use their real names in digital conversations—-but I’m not sure I’m ready to go there.
    There is a permanence to actions taken on the web that is intimidating, considering that middle schoolers are still developing as decision makers.
    Their ability to think decisions through—and to carefully consider consequences of their actions—isn’t yet complete.
    They also struggle with controlling their emotions—middle schoolers “uncork” out of frustration sometimes simply because their brains haven’t matured yet.
    These cognitive characteristics mean that errors in judgment are inevitable.
    I think I see (and my thinking isn’t finalized by any means) pseudonyms as a safety net for these mistakes. They’re a layer of protection and privacy that is impossible to achieve online.
    Don’t get me wrong—-teaching responsible online behaviors, including treating others with respect and protecting oneself, is a huge part of what we do in our classroom.
    I just think I’d be more comfortable encouraging the use of names and other identifying information if I were teaching high schoolers.
    Middle schoolers have too much to learn about the line between public and private to jump into those waters feet first.
    Does any of this make sense? I’m just thinking through the keypad right now.
    Bill

  8. Patty Jordan

    Wow, Bill. Thanks for sharing your answer. I know many teachers will be glad to have this thoughtful reply. I agree with you that kids need the same supervised experience on the computer that they get with driving the car. I’m still on the fence about using a a pseudonym and will check back to see other comments as they come in.

  9. Laura Deisley

    The terms and conditions for MySpace indicate anyone 13 or older; and I believe Facebook is 14.
    I am with Matt on this one. Our students need to know how to be safe on line without establishing fake identities. We have middle school students using their first names on their blogs, and we incorporate many of the tools in our classrooms so students can learn to live online–their “third place”–safely.

  10. Matt Montagne

    I disagree with your statement that kids under 18 should use psuedonyms and completely maintain their anonymity. I actually believe doing these two things encourages nefarious behavior and breaks down any potential to establish rapport and trust, which is an extremely important element in any community, whether that be virtual or face to face.
    It’s happening right now all over the world…youth are using their real names and engaging in online networks safely and appropriately.
    Matt Montagne

  11. Pat

    This was a great answer! I often compare using technology like a car. We have to show students how to “drive” and where the appropriate places to drive are. Just like the real world, you can drive to ball parks, arcades, and even inappropriate places or you can drive to museums, libraries, stores, etc. I like your analogy to the food court too. That was perfect!