Safe navigation still should be the priority

Anne Collier of NetFamilyNews describes why sites like Skout are bad for teens. Yet, overall, we should still encourage our youth to navigate the internet safely and wisely.

Teaching safe navigation is a good point to stress given the fact that this study (condcuted by McAfee, the internet safety company: Bias alert!) states that many teens engage in behaviors that result in them hiding some internet usage from their parents. Overall, the results of this poll are not too surprising to me. I mean, really: young people hide parts of their lives from their parents! No! Do tell…

Of course youth clear their history, close their browser window (note: I do this reactively at work even if I am doing something legit!), and use non-monitored computers. They are (young) people who don’t want their parents to know everything! And you know what? Parents shouldn’t know everything. Parents do need to know the big, important stuff, but not necessarily the day-to-day feelings and situations that come and go fleetingly.  It’s important that young people have some privacy in their lives, too. So for PCMag to say that  young people are “fooling” their parents by using cell phones to go online and high privacy settings (!) — shame on them! That’s just irresponsible fear-inducing.

I also find it disappointing that this article also lumps in searching for “sexual topics online” (36%) along with surfing porn or “nude content” (32%)  and accessing violence online (43%) as “inappropriate.” Really? Getting some sexuality education is not appropriate. Sigh.

 

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Isolating Our Youth

I wanted to reflect on danah boyd’s opening paragraph in her commentary on internet safety in the Boston Daily:

…” four generations of parents have slowly eliminated children’s freedom to roam in physical spaces. In turn, children and teens have turned to the Internet to reclaim social opportunities they’ve lost. In interviewing teens, I consistently find that they would prefer to get together in-person, but that parental fears, over-scheduling, and lack of viable transportation often make offline socialization difficult, if not altogether impossible. For many young people, social media fills this gap, and allows them to ‘hang out.'”

This is horrifying to me. As boyd articulates, this idea is nothing new. Joel Best in his book Threatened Children, discusses similar issues in the over-sensationalization of kidnapped children and how that spreads fear among parents. Are we really shutting our youth away from social experiences in the name of their safety? What long-term impact will that have on their relationships, sense of self, and confidence as they venture out into the world?

What I find somewhat ironic is that while we are simultaneously trying to “protect” our children from the big, bad, world, we are also dismayed by the amount of time they spend in front of media — especially television and video games — and how this contributes to an increase in obesity. Adults also bemoan the amount of disclosure and maltreatment that happens in social media (though boyd in her commentary tries to debunk some of that).

We can’t have it both ways. Either we need to trust young people to frequent social spaces in the physical world, or we need to allow them more freedom in the digital world. Or, ideally, both. Learning to trust young people and allow them to make healthy decisions is, in my opinion, the best thing we can do to support them in both the short- and long-term. As USC Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts  Henry Jenkins has stated:

“Kids don’t need us watching over their shoulders; they need us to have their backs.”

Teenage insecurities

I am dealing with my own struggles these days, and I find some are exacerbated by social networking. Note how I say that these issues are “exacerbated” not “caused” by social networking. I believe there is a big difference.

A November 2011 article in the Huffington Post brings it home for me. Titled Life is Not a Popularity Contest, it hones in on our desire to have more friends, see and be seen, but at the expense of true connection. Dr. Brene Brown distinguishes this as belonging (what we should aspire towards) vs. fitting in (what we end up doing when we simply collect people into our databases instead of truly getting to know them). Actually, Dr. Brown goes beyond this. She states that it is important to be true to yourself instead of always trying to please others, or at least make them happy. But our fear of being disliked, forgotten, or simply ignored pulls us into this pattern of simply being seen as someone who is nice to be around. Which ultimately harms are own senses of self and authenticity.

Social networking allows us to share and check in with so many people, but not necessarily connect with them. Connecting takes time, vulnerability, and mutuality. “Hoarding” friends, as the HuffPo article discusses, is no way to do that. All it does is fill a void with nothing cleverly disguised as substance. Much in the same way that junk food may fill, but never nourish.

But I don’t think this issue is unique. Back when I was a youth, before social networking, I still felt the need to be a part of something. THE party, the inside joke, the more desirable crowd. This yearning to “fit in” did not surface with Facebook (or even MySpace or Friendster); it’s always been there. Brown argues in her book The Gifts of Imperfection that our need for connection is innate. But social networking makes fitting in easier and easier, which further distances ourselves from real connection.

I remember getting to know people in the true sense of connection when I was in college. The all-night talks in a dorm hallway. Going up to the foothills for the day to just be with others. Those days are long gone for me, but it’s best if I remember them so I do not fall into the trap of collecting rather than connecting. Especially since connection is what I need most right now. So, bring on the walks, the Happy Hours (adults only, please), and silly times. And while I still make “like” your post, I will also try a little harder to realize that doing so does not mean I actually reached out to you that day.

 

What would have happened if?

This New York Times article highlights the life and work of danah boyd, self-proclaimed “social media scholar, youth researcher & advocate.” What I like about this article is how boyd shares some of her personal experiences and how those tie into her work and philosophy — that youth going online is not only not necessarily dangerous, but can even be helpful. It can promote political awareness and advocacy. It can reduce isolation. It can save a life. In the article, boyd states that “At the age of 16, I thought I’d be dead by 21,” she said. “I lost 13 classmates to drug overdoses, suicides, accidents and a murder…The Internet was my saving grace. I would spend my teenage nights talking to strangers online, realizing there were other smart kids out there.”

To some extent, her story sounds exactly like the ones adults are terrified by — talking to strangers online in times of pain and trouble. But, for whatever reasons, boyd came out the better after reaching out to an online community.

I am around 10 years older than boyd, so did not grow up with an online world. However, she and I do share some similar experiences in terms of having a troubled adolescence. I wonder if I would have benefited from reaching out to others online, or if I would have been more representative of the general research which states that troubled youth are more likely to develop close online relationships and put themselves in danger as a result. Clearly, I will never know. But I do wish I had options to reach out to others when I was hurting most.

More on online safety

One of my high school graduation gifts was a brand new computer. I didn’t have to share it with anyone, and I could download as much music as I wanted to – without using all Dad’s memory. However, with that new computer came new responsibilities; keeping myself safe while online (and not filling the hard drive with music before I even moved away to college). My parents were pretty oblivious to the dangers of being online, and were quite surprised when they realized that I could easily spend a few hours chatting (using ICQ … that dates me) with people I had never met in person.

Do you know a graduate who got a laptop? Do you know how to help them be safe online? Here are some tips for keeping both youth and adults safe while using the internet:
• Get a free email account; Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo all have easily created emails
• Select a gender-neutral username and email; anything overly feminine or sexual may attract unwanted attention
• If you’re using an IM client (Gmail, Yahoo, AIM), block or ignore unwanted users who may be talking to you
• Don’t let others draw you into online conflict; ignoring harassment, rather than defending yourself may not seem like the best thing to do, but by responding, you’re letting that harasser know that they’ve touched a nerve.
• Only “say” online what you would actually say to someone’s face; words travel quickly and you need to be able to stand behind your words.
• Don’t share personal information: your full name, your address, your phone number, any credit card information or even identifying details about yourself. I know this is hard (I even have a hard time doing it here), but it’s worth it in the end!
• When opening emails, use caution – attachments can be dangerous – only open them from those you know.
• Remember that if you’re uncomfortable in a chat room (forum/message board/etc), you can leave.
• A specific tip for parents: watch what your children are doing. If they’re home alone a lot, and you’re worried about their internet use, you can password protect things to prevent their over-surfing. Watch the history with regards to their internet use, and remind them that you’re checking in on them.

The internet doesn’t have to be a scary place; it can be made incredibly safe, if you’re willing to put forth the effort!

On a completely different note: Happy National Ice Tea Month, Turkey Lover’s Months, Fresh Fruit & Vegetables Month, Papaya Month, Dairy Month all along with Internet Safety Month!

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The dangers of MySpace

Last weekend, I traveled four hours in a mom-van to Wildhorse Canyon, to participate in a young adult church retreat. Over lunch on Saturday, the table of eight talked about what we were doing in school (most of the 320 people that went were students), and what we eventually wanted to do. Since I am in school, am an intern (Hi Dr. Kris!) and am working part-time, I had a lot to say. As I mentioned that I work with how the internet is affecting teens’ sexuality, faces around the table began to turn inside out. As a member of one of the many left-leaning Christian churches in our gorgeous Pacific Northwest city, I was surprised by the reaction of a girl directly across the table from me.

Breathlessly, she almost shouted “the church doesn’t approve of the use of MySpace … by anyone!” and I couldn’t help but laugh. I played devil’s advocate (while at church camp! Oh no!) and asked her to show me in the Bible where that was mentioned “we are a Bible-based church, aren’t we?” I didn’t really mean to embarrass her, but I did, and she didn’t say too much to me the rest of lunch. Oops! Not the way to get conversations going, Sarah.

Another girl eventually started talking to me (while no one was watching … she couldn’t be associated with one of those* girls) about why she believed MySpace was dangerous. “You have a profile on there, and then perverts can find you and stalk you!” I was a little more tactful in explaining to her that you can have a private account; set up controls, keep strangers out (know my last name? only then can we be friends) and that you don’t have to branch out from your main circle of friends if you don’t want to. I think I know 95% of my friends list from in-person relationships.

I was able to talk to another guy at the table about how MySpace is creating positive opportunities for non-profit outreaches. He didn’t realize the positivity that could come from responsible MySpace use, and I felt really great being able to explain this stuff to these kids**. I offered not only the Virtual Mystery Tour’s MySpace address to them, but also my personal address as starting points if any of them ever got over their fear of “all the perverts”. And we’ll see if they ever make eye contact with me at church again.

Really though, I was surprised to see such a different reaction to MySpace from people somewhat near my age group. Rather than experimenting with the internet, these 18- and 19-year-old students were acting like my mom; afraid that a misspelled word in Google would yield such wild pornography she’d never be the same. It makes me wonder whether the media is being “effective” in their campaign to scare the younger generation away from the internet. Time will tell. Until then I’ll be searching Leviticus for “If thine daughter maketh a MySpace account, sell her to the Canaanites.”

*aka – one who not only has a personal MySpace account, but also accesses another for school credit
**I later found out my table was mostly college Freshmen … almost a decade younger than me.