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.

 

Tooting my own horn — and finding it’s limits

I had the pleasure (and I mean it!) to work with Elizabeth Bernstein as she wrote her Wall Street Journal column, Skip the ‘Talk” about Sex, Have an Ongoing Dialogue. Bernstein was genuinely interested in conveying the best information on how parents should talk to their children about sex in the limited space of a newspaper column. And while my last quote is definitely truncated:

“[Parents] should talk more about pornography. ‘Talk to them about why you don’t like it: It’s unnatural and unloving,’ Portland State’s Dr. Gowen says” (What I said in my conversation with Bernstein was that pornography does not portray sex in a realistic manner, features bodies that are often artificially altered, and shows sex outside of the context of a loving relationship).

I think the overall messages about talking to children about everything and doing it on an ongoing basis came through loud and clear.

Then my phone rang.

I picked it up with my usual greeting and there was a parent on the other end of the line. He wanted to know more about how to deal with a sexting issue he was facing with his daughter (I didn’t ask for details). Although no expertise was attributed to me about this particular topic, it was mentioned in the paragraph where my pornography “quote” resided. So, by proxy I suppose, I was the person to call.

He wanted to know about resources for parents of children who have already been involved in a sexting incident. Despite my almost savant-like ability to quote statistics and resources related to youth sexuality (think Dr. Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds), I was stumped. I gave him some possible resources — MTV’s A Thin Line and Nancy Willard, and wished him the best.

Not satisfied, I got on Google and tried to uncover what I did not know. And discovered I was really looking for something that did not exist. To date, all I can find are resources (some much better than others) that give parents tips on what to do to prevent sexting, but not what to do once it already has happened. Which, in my opinion, is just as important. But most likely not something columnists and health sites want to think about.

Is this my new mission? Possibly. At least this void will stick with me for a little while.

Teachers in need of instruction?

Thanks Jeff for pointing out this story about a teacher who somehow thought it was a good idea to send naked photos of herself to a 15-year-old student!

I find this incident very hard to wrap my head around. Outside of the obvious inappropriateness of the act, did the teacher honestly think that a teenage boy would keep naked pictures of a teacher a secret? Imagine being in high school and getting a hold of some compromising pics of a teacher. Imagine your classmates getting their hands on them. What percentage of them would just keep those photos to themselves as opposed to having some sort of “fun” with them?

That’s what I thought.

I was in Teacher Education for a while, and I don’t recall ever covering the inappropriateness of sexual relationships with students. I am sure it was covered elsewhere, but not in the classes I taught. Perhaps during those ethics classes (or wherever they talk about such issues) we need to address the fact that sexting counts as acting inappropriately? Show news stories such as this to scare the heck out of those even tempted to do so? Again, I find it odd that it would even be necessary, but given the viral nature of texts and other digital communication, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to offer these gentle reminders to instructors.

A Game of Dress-up


Whether it be as a Disney princess in grade school, or as a naughty nurse in college, girls have always enjoyed playing “dress-up.” However, what happens when a 13-year-old “dresses-up” as an 1p-year-old and initiates a sexual encounter with a man 15 years her senior? Trouble.

In early July, Scott Knight, an Aurora, Oregon man was arrested on charges of statutory rape after a 13-year-old girl talked to authorities. After the two allegedly met on Flirt and supposedly talked through MySpace, they then met in person. Knight claims he asked for ID from the girl and then the rest of the details become muddy.

I came across a MyCrimeSpace blog summary of the incident that stuck to the released information, but the comments on the blog prompted me to start thinking, what makes teenage girls seeks out men like this? According to Justine Cassell & Meg Cramer from Northwestern University’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior (who I quoted in a previous entry) most likely this girl has “a greater tendency for conflict or lack of communication with their parents; high levels of delinquency, including committing assault, vandalism or theft; have a troubled personality due to depression, peer victimization, or [has experienced] a distressing life event.” The very first comment asked “what would she gain from setting him up?” A few answers – public attention, “fame” on the news, a book deal, a Lifetime movie even!

I remember being 13 and wanting to be 23, wanting to have an older boyfriend, wanting to be a grown-up; I don’t remember ever thinking that the Internet could be used like this, though. A little part of me is surprised at the lengths this girl would go to in order to make a connection with Knight (finding an internet dating site, getting a fake ID to lie about her age, working to draw in a man who would “fall” for her act) and then a bigger part of me isn’t so taken aback. This girl, rather than turning to her parents (who aren’t mentioned in any story that I can find), she turned to the internet and found adults there.

Is social networking to blame for incidents like this? Probably not. Frivolous Electrical Conversation explains that people blamed promiscuity on the telegraph, the telephone, and even the automobile.

“The telegraph provided users with faster responses to their communication with others, more frequent interactions, and more access to others around the world. It improved access to goods and services, and to knowledge of all sorts. And yet, even while the telegraph (and the internet) led to a revolution in business practices, it also gave rise to new ways to commit crimes, and it was quickly adopted beyond business to the communication needs of everyday people. In the techie magazines of the times (such as Electrical World, the historical parallel to PC Magazine) many authors alluded to a possible loss of a world they idealized, a world threatened by new modes of electrical communication. Media critics of the times described the telegraph as used by ‘talkative women’ who had ‘frivolous electrical conversations’ about ‘inconsequential personal subjects.’ Novels, like the 1879 Wired Love, and other popular culture texts expanded on this theme. The women portrayed in these narratives were näıve and incapable in the face of technical advances, and when they made forays into the world of the telegraph they ended up needing to be rescued, to be protected from technology, in sum. … technical ignorance was a virtue of ‘good’ women. The moral was that women’s use of men’s technology would come to no good end.” Justine Cassel & Meg Cramer in High Tech or High Risk: Moral Panics about Girls Online

Sound familiar?

Then we must ask “Who is responsible?” Another commenter later in the list of postings had a very good point; “they are both responsible for their behavior.” When does a person become “of age” for their own personal responsibility? Minors are held responsible for murders, being tried as adults in courts when faced with such serious charges, but incidents such as these are brushed off as solely the adult’s fault. Whether the adult blamed is the minor’s parent or the adult in the sexual relationship, it’s rarely the minor’s fault. Should parents be punished for the behavior of their teenagers? “At what point do the girls have to take some responsibility about what happened?” So, I ask you, “Where do we draw the line when playing dress-up?”

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Cornfed Citizen Safety

i work on the webImage by glsims99 via FlickrDr. Kris pointed me in the direction of Net Safe Kansas, a new website based in Kansas looking to protect their state’s Internet users. Maybe it’s a Kansas thing, but apparently Internet users there are ridiculously uneducated and can’t do research for themselves. On top of that, the website creators believe that their oh-so-exiting website will draw children in to read all of their rules. I was bored … what 12-year-old is going to stick around to read these things? (My comments on these “rules” are in italics.)

• Don’t believe everything you read online, especially from someone in a chat room. It’s extremely easy to lie online and predators will tell you anything to gain your trust. For example the “14-year-old girl” you just met online might actually be a 40-year-old man trying to gain your trust. Or the “14-year-old girl” you just met online might actually be a 160-year-old boy from your neighboring high school fulfilling a dare from his friends.

• Choose a random user name or screen name. Make sure it doesn’t reveal your name, age, school, location or interests. For example, the user name “CutieCougar94″ might reveal to a predator that this person is likely female, a student at a school with a Cougar mascot and born in 1994.” Or people of my generation will think that you’re a cute older woman looking for a younger man and that you quite possibly graduated in 1994.

• Don’t respond to messages that are mean or in any way make you feel uncomfortable. It is not your fault if you receive a message like this. Tell your parents right away so they can contact the online service provider. Messages that come to me that make me uncomfortable aren’t always illegal … if it’s not illegal, the online service provider can’t do anything anyway.

• Stick with friends. It’s always safer to chat with friends you know in real life. Strangers online are bad news. I was 22, online talking to strangers and met my best friend. Strangers online aren’t always bad news. You can safely meet some incredible people online.

Then they have a “NetSafe Kids Pledge” that made me laugh … and then I felt kinda bad for laughing at the ridiculousness of it … for about 37 seconds.

NetSafe Kids Pledge

1. I will turn off my computer monitor right away and tell a trusted adult if anything makes me feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused. There are TONS of things on the internet that confuse me. If I turned off the monitor every time that happened, I’d never learn anything. (I do understand what they’re getting at, though.)

2. I will tell my parents or guardian if anyone online asks me my name, my address, my telephone number, or the name and location of my school. Or I could just tell them no or ignore them or block them.

3. I will never share personal information such as my address, my telephone number, my parents’ or guardian’s work address/telephone number, or the name and location of my school without my parents’ or guardian’s permission. Why would a teenager share their parent’s work number with a stranger online?

4. I will tell my parents or guardian if anyone online asks to meet me in person.

5. I will never meet in person with anyone I have first “met” online without checking with my parents or guardian. If my parents or guardian agrees to the meeting, it will be in a public place and my parents or guardian must come along.

6. I will talk with my parents or guardian so that we can set up rules for going online. The rules will include the time of day I may be online, the length of time I may be online, whom I may communicate with while online, and appropriate areas for me to visit while online. I will not break these rules or access other areas without their permission. Seriously? I was a good kid growing up. Straight-A student, top of the class, blah blah blah, and I wouldn’t have set up rules like this with my parents. Do you know any teenager that has?

7. I will tell a trusted adult if I come across anything that makes me feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused. I will not download anything from anyone without permission from my parents or guardian. Stay away from Wikipedia.

8. I will not use rude or mean language on the Internet. *bites her tongue so she doesn’t say something inappropriate*

9. I will never respond to any messages that are mean or in any way make me feel uncomfortable. If I do get a message like that, I will tell a trusted adult right away so that he or she can contact the online service.

10. I will always remember that people online may not be who they seem. Because I can’t see or even hear the person it would be easy for someone to misrepresent himself or herself. For example, someone indicating that “she” is a “12-year-old-girl” could in reality be an older man. Hello stereotypes.

So, it seems that NetSafe Kansas has a good idea … but it almost feels patronizing to go through their website. I am pretty sure that there are Kansan citizens who KNOW better than the website assumes. Also, the fact that their kids & teens pages are still geared towards adults doesn’t make it any more marketable. The bare bones of it might one day be improved, but spreading more “stereotypical” internet information doesn’t help anyone.

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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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To emphasize or de-emphasize danger?

In a battle of the experts, Dr. Amy Tiemann takes issue with David Pogue’s New York Times article How Dangerous is the Internet for Children? His answer: not very. Her answer: there are still risks! Of course, both are right. But I still side with Pogue.

Pogue may have gone overboard by writing “I could not find a single example of a preteen getting abducted and murdered by an Internet predator,” because Tiemann rebuts with an example of a 13-year-old who was abducted and killed, balking at the idea of an arbitrary age cutoff. Still going to her tragic example’s memory page, one still cannot determine the important factor: Did this young girl willingly go off with this man? Sure, the parents state that they knew their daughter would never go off with a man she didn’t know and without telling her family, but, do we really know that was the case? Of course this young girl did not ask to be murdered. She wanted only good to come out of her online friendship. But I hesitate to say that a child will ALWAYS tell their parents EVERYTHING.

A horrible story? Yes. But again, we need to ask: How typical is it? The answer, by investigating news stories and research remains the same — highly unlikely. As Pogue states “The tales of pedophiles luring children out of their homes are like plane crashes: they happen extremely rarely, but when they do, they make headlines everywhere.”

It’s the nature of the beast: media cover sensational stories and we respond viscerally to them. But the same way I still plan to get on an airplane tomorrow, so should parents allow their children to explore the internet. Should we use precautions? Heck yes. I fasten my seatbelt, fly on professional airlines, and listen to the safety warnings. Internet users can benefit from similar safety precautions. But let’s not prevent the journeys they will take from happening at all.