Social Networking: It's a Good Thing

“Social networking is not a new phenomenon, and it’s not new for the Internet,” said Tim Lordan, executive director of the Washington-based Internet Education Foundation.“It’s a concept where teens communicate and build relationships online. Teens have always found ways to communicate with one another online. It used to be via e-mail and instant messaging. Now it’s via social networking Websites.”

Some popular social networking sites are MySpace, Facebook and Friendster. The sites offer a combination Webpage, instant messaging, and e-mail. Students create their own pages — complete with profiles, music downloads, pictures, artwork, text, and group chat rooms — and, based on their interests, network with each other by linking to each other’s pages.

Students are attracted to social networking because it is a place to socialize. It is a place to express yourself. “A lot of times, the pages offer a mode of self expression, a place to make your voice heard, and that’s why they’re so appealing to teens,” said Erica Carlson, Media/Public Relations manager for i-SAFE Inc., Carlsbad, CA, which specializes in internet safety education. “Teens feel comfortable in this world of endless relationships and places to be heard.”

“Most adults say the pages look awful and disorganized, complete with loud colors,” said Lordan. “They’re not eye-friendly. The fact is, the pages look a lot like the kids’ bedrooms — posters on the wall, haphazard placement of photos, and chaotic colors. But, for teens, it’s home. It’s their virtual home. Teens really feel like it’s their space.”

The challenge is that their spaces — the pages — are not private; therefore the art, pictures, song lyrics, and messages that kids are posting are not private expressions of themselves. “They don’t realize how public a forum it is,” noted Carolyn Walpole, director of education and curriculum development for i-SAFE Inc. “They like to talk to other people and say things they may not say in person or in the real world.”

However, Walpole also believes that social networking is a positive resource for students because it’s a place where they can demonstrate their artistic talent and what they know. “I actually think teachers can use it to their advantage and teach with it,” she pointed out.

Solving this “good-bad” tug-of-war requires the efforts of students and educators. Students need to be made aware of the risks, and educators need to know how to help students manage social networking in a safe, responsible way. “Educators have the opportunity to make social networking a positive experience for young people if they incorporate sound Internet safety curriculum,” Walpole explained. And she would know, as i-SAFE is a nonprofit Internet safety education organization whose mission is to educate and empower students, parents, seniors, and community members to safely and responsible take control of their internet experience.

Knowing the Risks

Before education can begin, educators must know all the risks students are facing via social networking. Walpole noted that students are posting too much personal information. This is a huge safety issue in that whatever is posted publicly can be seen by anyone, including potential employers, parents, advertisers, and predators. It allows predators to groom potential victims for sex. It also allows thieves to look for victims to swindle. And the posted information can be used to create a fake page about the student.

Another risk is the potential for cyber bullying — bullying that occurs online instead of on the playground at recess. “It’s an increasing problem,” noted Carlson. “In one mouse click, you can spread a rumor or a physical threat about a student to a huge amount of people.”

“One-third of 12-to-17-year-olds report having been cyber bullied,” added Lordan, whose organization sponsors many education projects, including GetNetWise, which wants Internet users to be only “one click away” from the resources they need to make informed decisions about their and their family’s Internet use. “There’s an anonymity to the Internet that makes bullying a little easier for a student to engage in.”

Carlson agreed, citing a case where a student who had been bullied at school sought comfort online through expressing thoughts of suicide. Rather than receiving the comfort he sought, he was encouraged to commit suicide. He did.

The experts agree that school administrators have a responsibility to educate students about risks and safety, and to keep students safe while at school. “We’re giving the students the technology and teaching them to use it,” said Walpole. “Students can almost intuitively deal with technology issues. They are technology savvy without the skills to keep themselves safe. That’s like driving without a license. If schools are enabling students to use technology, they must provide them the safety right along with it.”

It becomes a responsible use issue, not just a safety issue. Consider, for example, downloading illegal music. Once you get into the habit of doing it, it’s hard to break the habit. And, if a student downloads illegal music using equipment provided by the school, the school can be held liable.

Keeping Students Safe

When it comes to education, there are plenty of programs available from which to choose. But the experts have some tips they want educators to keep in mind as they begin such a program.

“It’s not just about Internet safety, but media literacy,” stressed Lordan. “Training must include information about bullying and staying away from people who may be predators. We used to be concerned about teens pulling down objectionable material. Now, we’re concerned about teens posting images or videos of themselves that may be objectionable or inappropriate.”

Similarly, education should not be isolated. “We don’t want Internet safety to be thought of as isolated,” said Walpole. “We want it to be a part of their consciousness to be safe and responsible.” To that end, i-SAFE encourages integrating its grade-specific program with social studies, literacy education or technology training.

Another tip is for educators to include parents in the training, as they are the first line of defense. Parents must be taught safety and encouraged to take on the responsibility at home.

Likewise, invite parents to be involved as you develop appropriate-use models and policies. Also be sure to include teachers and the information services people so that you’re developing consensus. “You can’t just tell one person to create a policy,” said Lordan. “Everyone needs to provide input and participate in discussion.”

Educate Early

Media literacy training should begin as soon as children have Internet access. Today, that’s preschool age: Studies show that 23 percent of three-to-five-year-olds have been online. Carlson said that these numbers show a trend that the largest growing number of Internet users are children.

Lordan agreed, noting that the first lesson for these youngsters is not to give out personal information about themselves to strangers. “That’s a life lesson,” he said. “It’ll be modified and changed as they get older. Still, the message is primary and the same: Be wary about giving personal information online.”

Enlist Student Support

The best media literacy training enlists student cooperation for their safety and to create a safe and productive learning environment. “We can’t be too Draconian with technology and teens,” said Lordan. “If we get into an arms race with them, we will lose. Therefore, schools and parents need to establish an environment and policies that are reasonable, in order to protect and create a healthy environment for learning.”

Lordan has an example of his metaphor for the arms race that begins with a European firm that developed a noise emitter that produced an ultra-high frequency sound that only the young ears of teens can hear. They named it the Mosquito Alarm, and they sold it to shopping malls that wanted to keep teens from gathering and loitering. It worked: the teens would hear it and leave.

Change scenes to the classroom, where students are not allowed to text message one another and can’t get away with it because of the beeping that signals a message has been received. Teens now download the ultra-high frequency sound, convert it to a ring tone and set it on their phones. The sound is inaudible to teachers, so now students have the ability to text back and forth without the teacher having any knowledge of it occurring.

In the end, social networking offers both benefits and dangers to students. When educators provide curriculum early and often, everyone is empowered to safely and responsibly take control of the Internet experience, thus increasing the benefits and reducing the dangers.