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.


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.

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  • Jen

    I think your message is clear and will be welcomed by many. It needs to be heard. Today I walked my daughter to school for Earth Day. There was a sign in front of the school stating “Walk to school today for Earth Day.” There are three known registered sex-offenders along the walking route to school. I wondered whether this one act of announcing this activity was potentially more dangerous than any online social networking. Aside from the registered sex-offenders along the route, I’m certain there are plenty more dangers parents choose to ignore, because they are not as hyped as much the Internet. I feel schools have chosen fear-mongering as a means of limiting their own liability and avoiding community collaboration. Sad indeed.

    Jens last blog post..I Have Something to Say

  • Sking

    Dean, I followed your tweets last night with some curiousity and found myself wondering what kind of conference were you attending. It certainly did not sound like something you would be happy with. Anyway, you pose the question, “How do we shift the conversation away from fear.” As a recent convert to putting myself out there in the cyber world, I know the answer is education. I was hesitant to put my identity out there at first when I started Alec’s class, but I quickly realized the strangers I was meeting were kind people, who were willing to share what they knew with no expectation of getting something in return. They seemed very interested in helping me with my own learning and I am learning new things every day as a result. What could be wrong with that?

    The questions I am asking is how do we make classes like the ones you and Alec teach mandatory at the college and university levels? How do we get Saskatchewan curriculum writers to recognize the importance of including digital literacy into all courses? How do we get teachers to recognize they need to seek out professional development in this area if they are uncomfortable with it or risk being made redundant?

    I understand the fear though; it is media sensationalism at its best. One horror story of an internet creep, gets far more press than things that really affect a lot of young people; we don’t even pay that much attention to poverty and what it puts kids through! For that matter, we would be better off talking to our students and parents more about the dangers of sugar and type 2 diabetes. That is a far greater danger than posting a few comments or pictures on the internet!

    Thanks for sharing your story; it has me thinking.

  • Dean,

    I think that the most crucial thing we can maintain with our children, with our students, is trust. And I am consistently shocked at how quickly so many educators and police officers – and I have been both – are willing to throw that trust away.

    We so often hear these “authorities” tell kids of the huge dangers in alcohol, sex, drugs, and now facebook, we exaggerate in such gigantic ways, and kids being kids, kids being experimenters who test things out, they discover the exaggeration very quickly and decide that adults are either clueless or are outright liars. And once they’ve decided that, we have lost our ability to influence them.

    So in this case the counselor has taught the students that he/she is a liar who is willing to cheat to make a point, and who perceives his or herself as above the law. The police officer has confirmed for the students the worst stereotype of the thug cop willing to suppress all teenage fun. The parents went home that night, repeated the words of these misguided adults to their kids, and now everyone – counselor, cop, and parents have lost all credibility with these students.

    We know there are dangers everywhere in the world, but we also know that statistically the most dangerous spot for any child is their own home, and the people most dangerous to any child turns out to be their own parents. I’m not suggesting that we terrify our children by exaggeration those facts either. But I am suggesting, as you do, that we invest our energies in the real danger areas, while we work to prepare our kids for their connected future by modelling the kinds of behavior which provide both outreach and relatively smart behavior.

    Crossing the street is potentially life threatening, but we don’t lock our kids inside. We teach them to look both ways, and we prove to them that we are teaching them the true things by looking both ways ourselves.

  • It’s shameful that the Global news segment did not include any of the information from the other perspective, but I guess “No one’s ever been harmed by putting photos on the internet” doesn’t make nearly as sensational a story as “Teens adding random strangers to their Facebook profiles.”

    Is the point of fear-mongering to have them quit using social networks, or to educate them to their correct and appropriate usages?

    Ian H.s last blog post..Ridiculous ruling

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  • I think that people are starting to realize that methods such as using fear and blocking sites are not real solutions to internet safety. We need to teach kids responsible use. This is a concept our school has struggled with. Large thanks to Gary Ball, we have started to believe that making our students responsible and accountable at school will make them responsible and accountable at home…if we use fear and block them from accessing certain sites who will help them develop their skills as responsible users when they are at home, alone? I found Socol’s idea of losing credibility very interesting…I had never thought about this side of the situation before – thanks.