Parental Monitoring

I was struck by the findings of this research presented at the NetSafe Conference in New Zealand this week. According to a survey done by the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), 70% of parents monitor their teens texts and 84% monitor their online usage (to what extent, I don’t know). Despite this high level of investigation (prying?), few teens were aware their parents were doing it — 70% of the teens didn’t know their phones were being monitored and only 39% knew that their internet use was being investigated by their parents.

Time for disclosure here: I am not a parent. I work with youth and young adults as a small part of my job, but that’s it. That said, here is what I think of these research findings:

The disconnect between parental “spying” and teen awareness of it, to me, is disconcerting. I remember that my parents would rifle through my backpack to get a sense of “what was going on” when I was in high school (this was B.I. — before internet). I had closed up as several teens do and I believe they were simply desperate for information. But as soon as I caught on to what they were doing, it only sent me further underground. I learned to better hide my secrets — my grades, my crushes, my hopes, fears, and desires. I felt betrayed and vowed not to tell them anything about what was going on with me and how I was feeling.

I am not saying my experience represents that of a typical youth today, but I do believe that there are some out there that are a lot like I was then. And, I admit, I needed help from a trusted adult back then. Finding out I was being spied on did not help that situation. So, I wonder: How would many of these young people react to discovering that their parents are invading their privacy without their knowledge?

I know some parents believe they have a “right” to do what they are doing, and are more often than not monitoring digital behavior out of love and concern for their children. I still don’t think it makes it right. And I do believe that for those young people for which there is something to be concerned, such actions could backfire big time. Research shows that youth who are struggling in the offline world are more likely to engage in risky online behaviors. Making the world seem less safe for them through spying seems that it could make matters even worse.

My hope is that parents and youth can somehow engage in more open dialogue. Easy to say, and an enormous challenge to actually do. Building the trust for this sort of conversation takes a lot of time and effort from all parties, but I believe it is worth it in the end. I know I would have benefited from this approach much more than I would have from backpack snooping. My relationship with my parents would have as well.

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.”

“Am I pretty?” Questions better left unasked

I am not so sure this is a new trend, but it is one that the media have picked up over the last few days. Most of the articles and blog posts say pretty much the same thing: Middle-school aged girls are posting videos on YouTube asking viewers if they are pretty or not. Then let the responses begin…

This is not unlike Hot or Not, the web site specifically created to answer the question, which has since morphed into a dating site full of risque pics and cleavage. And given the focus on dating, this site is not really meant for the younger set. So, for tweens and early teens, YouTube, in their eyes, will suffice.

My thoughts on this were featured on the amazing Anne Collier’s blog post. Anne and I exchanged thoughts over whether these videos are more harmful than a site like Hot or Not. I think the jury is still out. What I want to add, however, is that although I did say that many of the comments under this one particular video were “stupid” — and by that I mean irrelevant and off topic, there were also ones that were quite harmful and disturbing. For example, one person replied that the poster was “pretty enough to rape.” No one should ever read that.

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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Become the Bimbo you always wanted to be!


There has been quite the stir about a intriguing website; MissBimbo. Geared toward the “tween” set, this site allows users of any age (although the creator states that it is geared towards nine- to 16-year-olds) to create their own “Bimbo.” Remember those Tamagotchi toys that everyone had a few years ago? This site has been likened to a perverted (both literally & figuratively) online version of those toys.

200,000 girls have created their own “Bimbo” they spend about 20 minutes a day playing Sudoku, buying new clothes and even hooking up with fake boys. The site also allows you to “face-off” with other “Bimbos” doing challenges. Doing these things earns you “Bimbo dollars” and “Bimbo Attitude points” which up your status on the website so that you can “stop at nothing to become the reigning bimbo!”

I tried to sign up (who doesn’t want a naked virtual character to babysit, earn money for & dress in “clubbing clothes”?) and was fully registered before receiving an email: “due to unforeseen worldwide interest in Miss Bimbo we have had difficulty in maintaining our game in the manner players have been accustomed.” No publicity is bad publicity? What happens when it shuts down your website? I may keep an eye on this to see if I can eventually join.

Different areas of the game encourage you to do certain actions:
“Accidentally forget to wear underwear – two days of guaranteed publicity!”
Level 7: “After you broke up with your boyfriend you went on an eating binge! Now it’s time to diet … your target weight is less than 132lbs.”
Level 9: “Have a nip & tuck operation for a brand new face. You’ve found work as a plus-sized model. To gain those vivacious curves, you need to weigh more than 154lbs.”
Level 11: “Bigger is better! Have a breast operation.”

These action requests are what cause comments such as those from Dee Dawson, a medical director of Rhodes Farm Clinic in England “This is as lethal as pro-anorexia websites. A lot of children will get caught up with the extremely damaging & appalling messages.” Beat chief executive Susan Ringwood agrees saying that “the website could make girls believe that weight & body size manipulation [are] acceptable.” I grew up playing Pac-Man and have yet to eat a bunch of dots after chasing them around in a dark maze. I also played a game where Bugs Bunny used ether to kill zombies and I’ve never had the urge to knock someone out with the anesthetic.

I really don’t know whether to laugh at the site & the hubbub about it, or to be disturbed by the site & encouraged by the outrage towards it. Maybe one day I’ll be able to virtually “bag [my] billionaire boyfriend” to earn mucho “mula”.

Do you think that a “Himbo” version would ever be released? Why or why not?