The Continuing Saga

I had one of the strangest events of my professional career on Tuesday night. Coming back from 10 days in Europe I checked my calender to see I was schedule to speak at a Parent night at a high school in a neigbouring district.  I remember being asked a few months early about speaking as part of a 3 person lineup on Internet Safety. I was very up front with the organizer stating that I don’t spend a great deal of time on the dangers and lures of the internet but rather how to leverage online spaces for positive purposes. I acknowledge dangers but also utilize many research studies that debunk common beliefs about internet safety.

So spend part of Tuesday revamping and cleaning up a few previous presentations to fit into the 20 minute time slot I was given. I was called that afternoon to confirm my appearance with the school counselor and a local police officer. About 30 parents showed up which is pretty typical. While I recall being told about the scheme set up to test kids willingness to add friends in Facebook, I didn’t fully understand the concept until the counselor revealed the plan.  She created a fake profile and tried to get as many students to add her as a friend. The point was to show the parents and students how willing the students were to add strangers. She dropped this bomb on the parents and emphasized the dangerous behaviour shown by the students and how vulnerable they were to predators et. al.  Parents were shocked and their faces were filled with dismay, anger and concern. This went on for about an hour. The police officer who introduced himself to me by stating he didn’t know a lot about computers or the internet proceeded to present for almost an hour on how dangerous the internet was, how it was not policed and was a playground for predators.

And then it was my turn.

I immediately announced that I would be providing a very different perspective and that while I acknowledged some of the dangers and concerns I actually disagreed with many of the points made by the first two speakers. I’ll not post the presentation here, it wasn’t that inspiring but it contained similar content to this one done last summer.  I recognized the lateness of the evening but also wanted to provide hope and balance to a very one sided and what I believed to be somewhat misguided discussion. We had a brief Q and A afterward and many parents expressed their gratitude about hearing another side.

It was a weird evening to say the least. While I recognize the concerns of students acting badly online, these students, I presume are using facebook the way most are: posting a few photos, giving status updates and connecting with friends. I’ll restate this piece of research from the PEW Internet and American Life Project

Our research, actually looking at what puts kids at risk for receiving the most serious kinds of sexual solicitation online, suggests that it’s not giving out personal information that puts kid at risk. It’s not having a blog or a personal website that does that either. What puts kids in danger is being willing to talk about sex online with strangers or having a pattern of multiple risky activities on the web like going to sex sites and chat rooms, meeting lots of people there, kind of behaving in what we call like an internet daredevil.

This completely contradicted what both the police officer and counselor were saying. I stressed that I wanted my kids stuff to be online and that sometimes that included personal things. My 10 year old writes about personal things. That’s what she knows. I don’t worry about her. My own kids see me modeling appropriate behaviour and we talk about what we do online. As Will writes, I want my kids to be found. I also stressed that my concerns continue to revolve around cyberbullying, understanding the changing nature of privacy as well as the lack of critical thinking and understanding of digital content and authentication of information. I also added this quote from danah boyd:

Why are we so obsessed with the registered sex offender side of the puzzle when the troubled kids are right in front of us? Why are we so obsessed with the Internet side of the puzzle when so many more kids are abused in their own homes? I feel like this whole conversation has turned into a distraction. Money and time is being spent focusing on the things that people fear rather than the very real and known risks that kids face. This breaks my heart.

I feel like I’ve posted about this too many times. 2 years ago, we had few educators using any form of social networks and thus the discussions were few. Today their is more information and we have more educators using Facebook and have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. I’m perplexed about how to shift the conversation away from the fear. Fear is usually attached to the unknown. Most of these parents and teachers simply don’t know and it’s always easier to attach a quick label to the unknown. If it’s presented as a threat to children, well, you know the rest of that story.

Today this happened at the school.

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That’s just not my style. I still haven’t fully comprehended what message was being sent other than don’t add strangers to your Facebook account.  It seemed like a lot of effort to spend on a quick emphasis to something that requires much more context and teaching and modeling. Maybe more discussion will follow. I hope so. But I’m not hopeful.