What is your Online Reputation?
I have been talking a lot lately about online reputation with teens. I think it is important for youth to recognize that anything they put online and anything they do offline that gets posted online, could end up being immortalized on the World Wide Web. I advise students to start thinking about their online reputation at an early age – the earlier the better. I begin this discussion by asking them if they have ever ‘Googled’ themselves and ask them to think about what came. Is it anything good? How about something embarrassing or even inappropriate? I tell them that without a doubt others are exploring the Internet for information. Friends, adults in their lives, and future employers, among others, will search for them online and judge them and base decisions about jobs or other opportunities based on what they find out. In fact, a recent study sponsored by Microsoft found that 79% of recruiters and human resources managers review information about potential employees that is available online, and 70% said they disqualified applicants due to what they found.
I suggest that teens (and adults for that matter) work extra hard to do great things at school and in the community (e.g., making the honor roll, volunteering, extra-curricular activities, etc) so that when one does search for them, they find evidence of hard work, integrity, and civic-mindedness. This is especially important if a teen does make a mistake and posts something inappropriate online – they want to bury the bad with good things. This can also be useful if someone is cyberbullying or harassing students by posting rumors or hurtful comments about them in a way that might show up in a search. In fact it is difficult if not impossible to completely prevent someone from smearing you electronically – the best approach is to create an online reputation that emphasizes the positives and minimizes any of the negatives. What have you done lately that might be found online that others might judge you on?
Should Teens Have a Computer in Their Bedrooms?
If you look at any “Top Ten List of Ways to Keep Your Kids Safe Online” that you find on the Internet, no doubt one of the recommendations that you will find near the top is: “Keep the family computer in a common area of the house.” While this is sage advice, it is also overly simplistic. First of all, everyone has a friend who has a computer in their bedroom. In fact, 56% of youth in our most recent survey reported that they had a computer that was connected to the Internet in their bedroom at home. So your child will simply go to someone else’s house to surf in privacy. Second, they can often access the Internet at school or at the local library. You might think that filters will prevent your child from accessing inappropriate content, but think again. Ask your typical teen and they can talk you through ways around filters. And while teachers and librarians try to monitor computer usage, it can be difficult to continuously watch. Finally, if your child has a web-enabled cell phone, they have a computer in their pocket – no need for a big clunky machine in their bedroom. Nearly 50% of the students in our most recent survey said they could access the Internet from their cell phone.
I tend to take a slightly different view of this particular problem than most. Without a doubt, parents need to monitor what their kids are doing online. But instead of completely prohibiting access at home or in one’s bedroom, consider being more creative. For example, maybe you allow your teen to have the family laptop in their rooms for one hour each night for approved purposes only (e.g., homework). You tell your daughter that you have installed tracking software and that you will review everything that she has done on the computer on a regular basis and if she violates the agreed-upon rules, the technology will be taken away. On the other hand, if she demonstrates responsibility over a period of time, then additional privileges will gradually be granted. For example, maybe at some point you allow your child to go onto Facebook for up to an hour per day (after homework and housework is done!). Another condition of Facebook usage might be that they help you (the parent) set up your own profile and then they must be your friend. That way you can see everything that your child is doing on the site and ask them about unwise postings or unfamiliar people. Doing this at a relatively early age (13 or 14) will help to instill responsible practices at an age when they will still listen to you. If you wait until they are older (16 or 17), you will likely miss the boat and they may have already established questionable practices.
In short, I would like to suggest that parents be creative about encouraging responsible technology usage. Don’t assume that your child will have the knowledge necessary to make good decisions while online. We take a long time to teach our kids how to drive a car, and eventually we have to let them drive alone. We only do this after many many hours of practice and instruction. Some will get into accidents or receive speeding tickets. Many will not. The same is true with technology. If given instruction and guidance, I am confident that most teens will avoid the pitfalls associated with technology. Ultimately, parents themselves are the best judge of their child’s ability to be responsible, and frankly some kids will not respond well to the added responsibility and privilege. Parents know when to sign their child up for driver’s education classes, when to have them get behind the wheel for the first time, and when to turn them loose on their own (after getting their license or course). Parents also have a responsibility to ride shotgun with their kids on the information superhighway. Putting the time in early will pay dividends over the long haul.
Should Parents Ban Access to Facebook?
Our colleague Anne Collier from NetFamilyNews made us aware of an email that Anthony Orsini, a middle school principal from New Jersey, sent to parents a couple of weeks ago imploring them to prohibit their children from participating in social networking sites. As reported on CBS and elsewhere, the letter Orsini sent to parents included the following text:
“Please do the following: sit down with your child (and they are just children still) and tell them that they are not allowed to be a member of any social networking site. Today! … There is absolutely no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site! Let me repeat that – there is absolutely, positively no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site! None.”
Sameer and I have been exploring adolescent social networking for almost 5 years and even though we see the worst of the worst in terms of behaviors, we also agree that such examples represent the exception, not the rule. In general, we believe the benefits of social networking outweigh the negatives and potential risks, if youth learn to use the sites responsibly. It is certainly a very good idea for parents to talk to their kids about what they are doing online, though simply banning access to technology, without just cause, is a big mistake. For one thing, it is literally impossible for parents to completely prevent their children from participating in social networking. If they really want to be on social networking sites, they will find a way to get on: they will go to a friend’s house or log on at the library or pursue underground social networking sites that are less well known or regulated.
It is a much better strategy for parents to carefully express their concerns about these environments and teach youth how to be responsible online. Tell them that it isn’t a good idea to accept as friends those who they do not know and trust in real life. Demonstrate the dangers of posting too much personal information online. Show them how to use the privacy settings. Provide them with examples from the media where teens have gotten into trouble for misusing social networks. Our research suggests that teens are listening and improving social networking practices! Print this out and give it to them. Odds are they will be just fine if they abide by these commonsense guidelines.
Then, have your kids help you set up a Facebook page and tell them that they need to be your friend. That way you can see everything they are doing on the site and you can remind them about what you talked about if they slip up. And you can send them gifts on Farmville.
It is very important that parents and others work to instill responsible practices in youth at a relatively early age – when they will still listen. Banning access is a short-term solution that will likely create additional problems in the future when teens eventually do go online and don’t have the skills necessary to responsibly navigate the World Wide Web.
By the way, as Anne points out on her blog, the same week that the New Jersey principal distributed the email encouraging parents to ban participation in Facebook, the Boston Globe reported that Obama’s pick for Teacher of the Year regularly uses Facebook in her classes. As you know, we have discussed the issue of teachers interacting with teens online in multiple posts on this blog. While I am not sure that we have come to any definitive conclusion, it is interesting to see examples from both sides of the issue come up in the news recently. What do you think: prohibit or promote the use of online social networking?
What Teachers and Administrators Can Do About Cyberbullying – Podcast
I was featured on *Audio Ed* to discuss in detail how administrators, teachers, and staff can prevent and respond to cyberbullying among school students. Please click here to download and listen (8 minutes, MP3 file). Justin and I are passionate about training and working with public districts as well as private schools to meaningfully inform and educate youth, parents, and educators on this topic. Please let me know if you have any specific questions about what I shared in this interview – I would be more than happy to flesh out my thoughts further. Also, please check out our Top Ten Prevention Tips and Top Ten Response Tips for Educators for a quick and concise summary of what I discussed.
Sysomos released a report in June describing the “explosive growth” of twitter over the past several months. We’ve certainly seen an increase in tweeting in popular culture, but are adolescents jumping on board? Our conversations with teens suggest no. And a recent account from one particular teen about his peers’ views of twitter also reaffirms this perspective.
Data we recently collected from 12-17 year-olds also suggests that teens are not quickly moving to twitter. Less than 8% of youth in two different samples from two different school districts (one very large and the other moderately-sized) say they used twitter in the previous week. This is inconsistent with the Sysomos report which claims that 31% of twitter users are between the ages of 15 and 19. Or it suggests that it is really 18 and 19 year-olds that are driving the numbers in this category. It is also important to recognize that Sysomos numbers are based on “self-disclosed” age, and according to the report “only 0.7% of users disclosed their age.”
What are your thoughts? Are the kids in your life tweeting? Are you a regular user of twitter?