Tag Archives: social media

Kids, kindness and cruelty online

Have you heard the story about the girl who Skyped with a close friend while she went to the bathroom, only to find the video posted online? Or the teen who (somewhat inexplicably) updated her status to say she’d gotten her period for the first time, and though she quickly regretted it and took it down, realized news had circulated like wildfire? Or the boy who texted some friends about an impromptu party at his house when his parents went out of town, and had hundreds of kids he didn’t know turn up and trash the house?

Stories like these have become Internet lore, the kind of urban legends (true or not) that illustrate our concerns about how new media technologies can magnify the fallout of typical teenage naiveté.

But is our re-telling of these stories gossip? Cautionary tales for our kids and other parents? Or do they function like modern-day ghost stories, keeping the bogeyman at bay through ritual repetition? It’s important to know whether these stories are simply reflections of our own anxieties at something new, or if they reflect a new reality for teens that is actually more dangerous because of the Internet?

A new report prepared by the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests that being a teenager in an age of social media might not actually be dramatically different from what it used to be back in the dark ages before Facebook (which only opened to the public outside of colleges in 2006).

The report, entitled “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites: How American teens navigate the new world of ‘digital citizenship,'” is based on interviews with 799 American teens from all backgrounds. The findings show that although negative interactions and occurrences are not uncommon online, that majority of teens report generally positive interactions. It does seem to suggest what experts have been saying for some time: parents have to be actively involved in what their kids are doing on the Internet.

Some key findings:

  • 69% of teens say that kids their age are mostly kind to one another on social media sites (compared to 85% of adults asked the same question)
  • 20% of teens say that kids their age are mostly unkind to each other on social media, while 11% said “it depends” (compared to 5% of adults who believe their peers are unkind).
  • 88% of teens report having seen people being cruel to one another (compared to 69% of adults). 12% said they saw cruel behavior “frequently,” 29% say they saw cruelty towards others “sometimes,” and 47% say they saw that behavior only “once in a while.”
  • 15% of teens say they themselves have been the target of harassment online in the past 12 months; 13% of adults also said this was the case.
  • Many more teens reported positive outcomes from using social media (78%) than negative ones (41%).
  • 65% of teens have had an experience on a social media network that made them feel good about themselves; 58% have had an experience online that made them feel closer to another person.
  • 25% of teens have had a face-to-face argument or confrontation with another person
  • 22% have had an experience online that ended a friendship
  • 13% had an experience online that caused problems with their parents
  • 13% of teens had an experience online that made them feel nervous about school the next day
  • 8% got into a physical fight with someone because of something that happened online; 6% got into trouble at school.

When it comes to bullying, it seems that the resources of technology are yet one more tool in a varied arsenal designed to torment others.

  • 19% of teens say they were bullied in some way over the past 12 months, usually in multiple ways
  • 12% report being bullied in person
  • 9% report being bullied by text messages
  • 8% experienced some form of online bullying, whether by email, through a social media site or instant messaging.
  • Girls are much more likely than boys to have been bullied in various ways, except for in-person bullying, which happened to both sexes equally.
  • 95% of kids who have witnessed cruel behavior online have witnessed others ignoring it, but 84% have also seen others defend the person being harassed or ask for the behavior to stop.
  • 67% of teens who’ve seen people harassed online have witnessed others joining in the harassment; 21% have admitted they themselves joined in.
  • 53% of those who sought out help and advice regarding cruelty online went to a friend; 36% went to a parent

What role do parents play in their kids’ use of the Internet?

  • 86% of those online say they have received general advice about responsible use of the Internet from their parents
  • 58% of teens say their parents are their biggest influence on what they think is appropriate behavior on the Internet or using a cellphone; 18% say their friends are their biggest influence; 18% say “no one” is an influence
  • Younger girls aged 12-13 say they are much more likely to rely on the advice of a friend than a parent regarding the Internet
  • 39% of all parents have “friended” their kids on social media sites; of parents who were already online, 45% report “friending” their kids

When it comes to thinking about the potential ramifications of what they post before hitting the Send button, not all teens are thinking ahead:

  • 55% of teens say they have decided against posting something because they say it might reflect badly on them in the future
  • Older teens (14-17) were more likely to think this than younger teens (12-13) – 59% vs 46%
  • 67% of 17-year-olds say they think about the consequences before posting things online.

To read more of their findings and for full discussion of their methodology and results, click here. To hear a really interesting interview on CBC Radio’s Spark with  Amanda Lenhart, Pew Internet’s lead researcher on this project, click here.

Is it ever OK to spy on your teens?

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 thy were very 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.

Should your teen be Facebook friends with their teachers?

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.