I was giving presentations at a school in Pennsylvania (last week) and got to the point in my presentation with parents and staff in the district about the risks and benefits associated with online social networking. When talking about the issues, I try to be reasonably impartial – simply presenting the facts as I see them. When pressed, however, I generally concede to my audiences that I believe the benefits to outweigh the risks – especially when these sites are used appropriately and responsibly. One concerned parent in the audience had trouble with this. His argument was that the risks clearly outweighed any potential benefit from sites like MySpace and Facebook and that they should therefore be avoided altogether by adolescents. Instead of arguing with him, I decided to open it up to the audience and several folks identified a number of potential benefits of social networking. So clearly there are benefits. The question remains, however, do the benefits outweigh any potential risk?
I don’t know. We are in a unique position as researchers in that we see the best and worst of online social networking. We talk to adolescents (and adults for that matter) who have been harassed through these sites. On the other hand, we also see creative writing and other expressions of adolescent identity depicted on the sites. So what do you think? Weigh in with your thoughts about whether or not we should encourage youth to participate in online social networking web sites.
CNN posted an interesting story about teachers setting up MySpace pages and “friending” their students…and about a Missouri legislator sponsoring a bill banning elementary school teachers from doing so. I was talking to Justin about this, and we both agree that a state bill banning this activity is completely overboard (another example of how politicians feed into the existing moral panic about these sites). We also both agree that school districts should have their own policies about whether teachers and students can interact through social networking sites. My personal opinion is that the vast majority of teachers and students would use the tool for beneficial and productive purposes, but that there is a slippery slope effect that would take place. It is way too easy to move from talking about school assignments to asking more “personal” (though innocent) questions to sharing private worldviews and engaging in candid self-disclosure with another person online. Anonymity and geographical distance while online, coupled with feelings of loneliness and the desire to connect with someone (anyone) when individuals interact through computer-mediated communication, make inappropriate messages between teachers and students a very real possibility. I feel pretty strongly about this based on communications research done in the evolution of romantic relationships on the Internet. Yes, I am aware of age and maturity differences between teachers and students. Yes, I am aware that some might think I’m being a bit overprotective and old-school. I just believe that the standard way of communication between elementary and secondary school teachers and students is perfectly fine and may not need enhancing. Students need to learn to talk with competence and eloquence in-person with adults, rather than having the crutch of typing things out all the time. This comes with opportunity and practice. With post-secondary instructors and students – the potential for problems still exist, but I am much more fine with using social networking sites to connect with each other for the purposes of education and learning. This topic is super fascinating and I would love to hear more thoughts. Clearly I could go on, but I will leave it for now at that.
I was talking to a friend today, who was interested in the two research papers on MySpace we’ve written. He posed two major questions: “What is the worst piece of information that an adolescent can reveal on their profile page?” and “What is the biggest single suggestion you can give to promote safety among youth who use social networking sites?” I thought they were worthy of discussion here.
Basically, there is no worst piece of information a youth can reveal. However, we highly recommend they do not post information that can be used to contact them directly, such as phone number, email address, and instant message screenname. It is important because it reduces one’s vulnerability to being directly contacted by strangers with perverse or malicious motives. Also, we caution against revealing the name of your school and your city. People who know you will know your school and city, and so there is no need to advertise that information to others. The biggest single suggestion we give is that all youth set their profile page to “private” or otherwise restrict its viewing to only those they have approved as “friends.” Also, we recommend that before you approve someone as a “friend,” you know them in real life (offline). This is easier to do on some sites (e.g., Facebook) than others (e.g., MySpace). Carelessly approving anyone and everyone as a “friend” so that you can run up your “friend” count is just not wise. Research has shown that it is generally much more likely that youth will be abducted, physically or sexually assaulted, or otherwise victimized by a friend or acquaintance than by a stranger.
By the way, one of our articles has been published in Journal of Adolescence, and the other is in peer-review…if you’d like to read either, please drop us a note. In these articles, we’ve shared data-based trends in how youth are using that site and revealing personal information that may render them susceptible to harm. They also provide useful strategies for prevention and education.
This is one of many questions we have received via email over the last several weeks. The answer is a bit more complicated than many adults realize. If there were a quick fix, Web site administrators would have implemented the changes by now. I don’t think it is so much a problem with Web sites. Clearly, Web sites need to have clear policies about inappropriate behaviors and content and mechanisms available for users to report problems. Web site administrators then need to respond immediately when instances of cyberbullying are called to their attention and remove offensive content immediately. Thankfully most of the mainstream sites have gotten better at this in recent months, so they are moving in the right direction.
It is also important to remember that much of the responsibility resides with the users of the technology (and the adults charged with teaching kids how to use the Web). For example, youth shouldn’t say things online that they wouldn’t say in person. They should keep their personal information safe and not reveal contact information (like their phone number or home address). They should also learn to be skeptical about people they only know from online. These online friends may not be who they say they are. Finally, youth need to feel comfortable talking with an adult they trust about any bullying they may experience (or any other problem they encounter online). Teach kids how to be responsible users of technology and it won’t matter what site they are on. They will know what is appropriate and what is not and know where to go for help if they run into trouble.