Social networking sites are not just popular with teenagers. It has come to my attention that despite that the fine print specifying a sign up age of 13 years in services like Piczo, students yet to officially become teenagers are using their choice of Web 2.0 technology. Students are accessing, creating and linking to and from their own multi-media, often garish (IMHO) websites with the usual array of pages and features - friends pages, pics, profile pages, shout boxes, custom pages, guestbook plus more blinking animations and images lifted from sources all over the web. It could be argued that as these sites and pages are being created outside of school time, the school has no control or responsibility over the use of or the content of these sites be they hosted on Piczo, MySpace or Beebo. But if many parents already feel left way behind, it is important that students are just left open to make mistakes in the most public arena ever.
I've done a few things as a young person that I'm not proud of and that I'm really glad were made in the privacy of a 1970's country town (where you could argue things weren't that private!) and then as a teenager, in the claustrophic environment of a boarding school. My mistakes can stay in the past. Noone has records or even evidence that can come back to haunt me as an adult. My mistakes were made but I have total control over who knows what about any indiscretions or embarassments from my formative years. It's unrealistic to expect that kids today should be held to higher standards of behaviour and decision making than I was 25 - 30 years ago. But online is not the place to show your ugly side, your vulnerable side, your whole life, your private details. It's potentially the biggest, most anonymous audience anyone could expose themselves to. Parents are rightly concerned and some have negotiated their child's online participation in these sites but others feel powerless, that kids have it all over them in terms of skill, purpose and technical knowhow. So, as educators, we are best placed to help protect kids from themselves.
Having checked a few examples out, here are some of the worrying aspects of what kids are up to.
- Private details being shared like full names, actual ages, school name.
- Pouting, brooding self portraits or aggressive poses with violent props.
- Shout boxes and guest boxes full of profanity, abuse and extremely bad spelling and grammar (cringe, we'll get blamed for the latter) .
- Photos that may or not have permission from the subjects being featured - some high quality which could be appropriated for inappropriate means.
Now it is not the technology that is causing the problem but the naivety of the users. But hey, young kids and teenagers have always been shortsighted and impetutous - it's part of growing up - so my approach to raising awareness of the potential dangers when speaking with students goes along with a two pronged attack - Your Reputation and Your Safety, What's It Worth To You? It's important to get kids to realise that too much personal information is easily gathered to track an individual down, that once something is on the web, it can be saved and re-purposed beyond their control and that angst, abuse and romances of the moment can come back to haunt you when you least need it. Links connect off to other sites which I know is a big part of the attraction, but means one person's risky behaviour in that network can compromise the safety and reputation of a student exercising care and restraint.
However, once you have that conversation and continue to leave the communication channels open, then kids will take steps to socially network with care. It is really important not to criticise kids or judge their character - after all, that can only confirm in their mind that adults (and teachers in particular) have no idea and the digitally divided wall gets reinforced. And teachers, particularly those who teach 10 - 15 year olds, need to know about this stuff. Go have a look at Piczo, MySpace and Beebo. Try to leave your judgemental side out of it and see how it works. Look past the provocative images and language that are often featured on the front pages of these sites and see how they interconnect - maybe, you will see the potential for learning as well.