My grandson Paul and I were visiting last weekend about Facebook. He is going into sixth grade next year and, while he does not have an account himself, plenty of his buddies in school are on Facebook. When I asked him why one needed to be careful when using sites like Facebook, his immediate reply was, "serial killers."
Hmmmmmm. While he has been known to pull his grandfather's leg, I sense that "stranger danger" is probably what he really has learned is the major safety concern of social networking use.
Jeff Utecht's post "Why We Need to Teach Social Networking" describes another example of what I call "stranger danger" or how social networkers, especially kids, might come to harm though by enabling malicious adults by giving them too much personal information.
But as I explained to Paul, these sorts of incidents are rare. They need to be considered, for sure, but kids need to be more concerned about two other sources of online danger - those actions committed by their peers and those that they commit themselves.
The likelihood of Paul being bullied online is much greater than drawing the attention of some Internet Hannibal Lector. How to respond if a peer's actions feel threatening or even uncomfortable, should get as much, if not more, emphasis in online safety classes than stranger danger. And teaching a child to recognize when his or her own digital communications might be considered cyberbullying should be a part of the learning as well. (I'd almost forgotten this guide our district put together a few years ago based on the work of Nancy Willard.)
But by far the most likely threat that Paul or any of us face in any online presence is what we do to ourselves by posting in thoughtless ways that may impact our reputations. The understanding that little or nothing posted online remains private is key to "online safety." That silly, cool, or rebellious act, immortalized by the ever present cellphone camera sending it directly to Facebook will be seen by one's peers, parents, teachers, college admittence officers, and employers - even if it remains online for a short period of time and is only shared with "friends." Using good judgement in posting and learning how to build a positive online reputation are the real skills needed in staying "safe" when using social networking tools.
We as parents and educators always seem to focus on the most high-profile, most threatening situations (child abduction, inappropriate relationships, etc.) as opposed to those that are the most likely to happen and that have the most long term impact (posting about cheating on a test, uploading photos of illegal substance use, etc.). But if we spend all our time teaching kids to be fearful online, we will not have time to teach them to be smart online as well.
Please teach these boys to be smart online.
Cartoon by Brady Johnson