Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Facebook safety for kids and their parents

I recently bowed to the inevitable and allowed my elder son to set up a Facebook account. Given the issues that accompany Facebook, I wasn’t thrilled about it, but as I do a lot of promotion of the value of social networks in learning, it really was time to practise what I preach.

My son has been on Facebook for 3 months. He has over 200 friends. I have been on Facebook for almost 5 years, and I have 42 friends (and of these, about 10 are really active on Facebook.) One of the conditions for allowing my son to have a Facebook account was that I would be one of his friends, so that I could see what was going on, and over the last three months I’d say everything I’ve seen on his account has been harmless (although I was reminded of the dangers of those '25 things you didn't know about me' questionnaires, which often prompt people to reveal a lot of the information people typically use as password security: mother's maiden name, first pet, etc.) In fact, he has friended an Australian kid who is very active in the scootering community on Youtube, and who (at the age of 12) creates amazingly well-crafted movies around scootering themes. This has inspired my son to find out more about photography, video editing, and movie making, so there is clearly value to be found in the social networks.

However, there is a flipside to all this. As part of one of my regular checks of his online activity (and as long as I pay the bills and take legal responsibility, I will monitor what he does online) I clicked into the Facebook accounts of some of his friends. Remembering that most of these kids are younger than the required 13 years for an account, I was really disturbed by what I saw on some of their pages. I browsed about 20 of his friends’ pages, and of these, only one page was set to private… all the rest were visible, if not to public, then at least to friends of friends. This increases the risks of cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying enormously. The content of many of these pages was equally disturbing, and showed very clearly that these kids have no understanding of the permanence of comments online, appropriate tone, and the risks associated with posting pictures of themselves. Of course, they are kids… we shouldn’t expect them to have a proper grasp of these issues. But their parents and teachers should. Which begs the question: how are we educating parents to be parents of 21st century students? Are we educating them at all? It’s all very well highlighting the risks of cyberstalking and online predators, but we can’t keep our kids offline, so we parents need to know how to keep our kids safe, and to be as active in supervising our tweens online as we were when we held their toddler-age hands while crossing the road.

I raised this issue with my son’s teacher, and offered to be involved in developing an education programme for parents. Her reply to me, see below, gives me great hope. I particularly like the way she is involving the kids in analysing the problem and looking for solutions: by making it their responsibility I am certain she is increasing her chances of success, and she is actively engaging the students in 21st century literacy skills at the same time.

…I have discussed with the class the use of FaceBook and [your son] brought up a valid point regarding FaceBook and how it is used at school. He and another student are now in the process of writing to the principal to voice their opinions and follow up with a solution to what they believe is an issue that needs to be resolved.

I agree with your concerns and have checked Facebook pages of students in the class to ensure that they have secure pages. However, as you know this is only as good as the security of their friends.

Earlier in the year we spoke about the kinds of comments/posts that people put on Facebook and yesterday we revisited those as well as talking about what information they should (actually should not) give/make available. We will revisit this a few more times throughout the year…

Hats off to you, Miss Lynch!