Dialogue on Internet Safety Continues
> 3/9/2006 11:13:55 AM

Over the past several months there has been a great deal of debate on the issue of  adolescents' use of the internet.  Specifically, we have been focusing on social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Xanga where anyone can establish an online account and share even the most intimate of details and thoughts. 

We've commented on this issue earlier at Anxiety, Addiction and Depression Treatments, here and here.  But to refresh, the underlying issue at play in this whole dialogue is that the internet has provided kids, as well as adults, a whole new venue in which to interact.  Some really interesting and exciting things have come of this.  Dating websites are making it easier for folks to meet.  Chat groups are putting like minded people in touch on issues that span the entire range of human knowledge.  Support groups like Everquest Widows, discussed here, are changing the way that we think about therapy.  And let's not forget blogs, dear no, let's not forget blogs. 

But with these tremendous advances also come increased perils.  In putting us that much more in touch with one another, the internet has also proven a valuable tool for those who wish to harm their fellow man.  Rapists, pedophiles, stalkers, con men and other miscreants have put the net to work in hatching their schemes and bringing harm to others.  The worry is that sites like MySpace are arming these ill-wishers with information, the currency of our modern world.  Often times, those who place themselves at risk have very little conception of the potential dangers that exist.

While safety from outside dangers is a major concern, there are other aspects to this debate.  Incidents involving social networking sites have been all over the news recently.  Dr. Helen, a psychologist who has dealt extensively with children, weighed in at her blog on the issue of school jurisdiction over the internet.  Excellent commentary has also come from Liz at I Speak of Dreams

In a comment to one of our earlier posts, Liz had this to say:

There are a bunch of different issues about students' behavior online:
1. Bullying
2. Hate-crime behavior
3. Threats of violence
4. Students' evident violation of schools' behavior codes (ie, photos of drinking)
5. Schools having the right to block access to certain sites from school-owned computers (including LiveJournal, MySpace, and whatever springs up to follow-on from MySpace)
6. Schools having the right to block access using *school internet servers*, even if the computers using the servers are student-owned.
7. Students' free-speech rights--students do have the right to criticize their schools, even in new media. The Electronic Freedom Foundation has good resources on this last post.

Liz concludes:
Parents and school districts are trailing their kids. But it isn't that complicated, really: the standard can be easily addressed. As in, what you say online should be something you would say in public, in person, to the people you are writing about.

This is certainly a great rule of thumb, but I worry that it is too simplistic an answer, or perhaps one that isn't simplistic enough.  What I mean by this is that while the web is drawing us closer, it also creates a disconnect that provides a false sense of security.  Bloggers, and in an earlier time, writers and columnists are a perfect example of this phenomenon.  Most of us would certainly agree with that statement, and claim that we never post any criticism on our blogs or in our writing that we wouldn't offer up in person, face to face.  The reality I feel, is much the contrary. 

That question aside though, the real trouble is that often technology provides outlets that many adolescents are simply not mature enough to handle.  Many of the situations that have come out of MySpace or LiveJournal involve middle schoolers who may not have realized, as I hope that most adults do by now, that there are repercussions to our actions, even on the web. 

These repercussions extend beyond adolescents to young adults and are covered well in USAToday, who ran a surprisingly long and well reported story yesterday on the issues of online privacy and safety.  Their piece opens with an anecdote about a student who was expelled from his Christian college because he posted information on his Facebook account that indicated that he was gay.  To go along with this are the horror stories of smart, succesful students who lose out on jobs when the prospective employer does some "googling" or Facebook searching only to find photos of the student engaged in illicit behavior.  There have even been reports of law enforcement officials using Facebook and MySpace to locate underage drinking parties and dole out citations. 

To some these stories may be surprising, but to anyone who has used Facebook or "Google stalked" someone, they are only the logical conclusions that follow from where we have been moving.  A lot of the discussion over at Dr. Helen's post centers on the fact that parents and school administrators are over-reaching, over-parenting and just generally over-protecting kids.  I agree with that sentiment to an extent.  We need to protect our children, but more importantly we need to teach them to protect themselves.  When a 13 year-old rages on his blog that he wants to harm a classmate, he needs to be pulled aside.  Should he be expelled, maybe.  What he definitely needs is to learn the boundaries of appropriate speech, whether that speech be posted on his "private" blog or shouted from the roof of the school. 

The college students mentioned in the USA Today article were victims of the false security of the net, and one would be naive to think that they aren't learning their collective lesson.  Some will certainly continue to slip up, but websites will respond to their customers by providing greater security and students will begin to watch the information they supply more closely. Interestingly, these same precautions will hopefully add a further layer of protection for younger users.  New MySpace owner Rupert Murdoch and NewsCorp know that the onus is on them to improve the product to protect their users.  The question increasingly may focus on law enforcements right to demand information from sites like MySpace and Facebook, and where the boundaries exist in those situations.  Liz points out that there is some great information at the Electronic Frontier Foundation on this issue.

As I've said before, parents need to be more vigilent about their children's net usage.  Give them their space to explore (their MySpace if you will), but be open in discussion with them about the risks and dangers that are out there.  When children feel compelled to hide their internet usage, there is the potential for them to put themselves into compromising situations.  Explore the world of the web together, and allow them to explore on their own.  They might just surprise you with their ability to make the right decision.

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