Scared off the web? Teaching online safety in the schools

April 2, 2007 at 4:09 pm 4 comments

Police officers A and B presented a PowerPoint presentation to parents during Parent-teacher conferences: “Caught in the Web: Don’t let it Happen to You”

Officer A began by mentioning Facebook, Xanga, and MySpace, and said that the internet is not without redeeming value; it is a huge boon to research and commerce.  But there are dark sides, and the people pushing the envelope are kids.   They would show us examples of what’s going on.

Officer B broke in, “How many of your children have computers in their rooms, do you know their passwords, do you check what they are doing online?”

Officer A went on.  Kids 13-18 are getting in trouble on MySpace.  They have no inhibitions online and are naïve.

Officer B spoke up.  “How many know more than their kids about computers? How many of you would let 35-40 strangers walk into your kids’ bedrooms at night?  That’s what’s happening when they are online.  How many of you want your 15-year old girl talking to a middle aged man, talking to me, every night?”

Officer A pointed out that kids are posting personal information, using inappropriate language, impersonating other people, lying about their age, making threats, and posting pictures.  Officer B said a picture posted online can travel around the world 20 times in twenty four hours (what?)

They proceeded to show a bunch of nasty pictures with kids in various states of undress, or boozing it up, or holding guns.  “What’s your first question when you see these pictures?” we were asked by officer B.

The answer they were looking for is “Whose house are they at?”

They showed pictures of kids chugging beer through a beer bong.  “Anyone know what this is?”  They mentioned something called pre-gaming where kids go somewhere to get drunk or high before a football game or something.

I raised my hand and pointed out that, “You are showing us sensationalistic….” 

I was interrupted by both officers.  “These are not sensationalistic pictures, this is what’s going on.”

I continued, “Yes these images are sensationalistic, you are showing them to us to invoke a strong response, which they do, and yes the behavior is disturbing, but nothing that you’ve shown here is new.  This is all behavior that has been going on for many many years.  What is the message that you are giving us, then?  That using MySpace is increasing the frequency of this behavior.  Or causing it?  I would argue it is unrelated to the web at all.”

Their response was a good, I think:  “What would a perspective employer say when looking at these pictures?  Scholarship and admissions people are checking FaceBook and Xanga these days.   All these activities have repercussions and once online they never go away, they can never be deleted.”

They went on to talk about common dangers of online behavior: cyberstalking, cyberbullying, hate groups, and internet addiction.  Officer B said “If they are spending 2-3 hours on Facebook it’s too much.”

I interrupted again.  I asked about the difference between being online on MySpace and watching TV or playing Xbox.  What makes the former so much worse?

Officer B said “The difference is that the Internet is interactive”

“That’s a bad thing?” I asked, “Isn’t interacting on line better than doing nothing in front of a TV?”

Moving on, Officer A mentioned that now you can talk to anyone in the world for free using AIM, Yahoo, Skype.  This can be great, but it can also be dangerous.

Of course there is sexual or adult-oriented material online.

The internet offers a time warped environment (I’m not sure about the pros or cons presented here).  

Cyberbullying is sending or posting harassing stuff about someone.  Cyberstalking is using the web to keep tabs on someone?  The internet is not anonymous.  It’s not that hard to find someone.  Sending 500 messages a day and flooding an inbox is the kind of stuff that’s going on.

There are no easy solutions.

You need to understand and learn about social networking and interactive web 2.0 stuff.  There are positive aspects to using MySpace; it can allow kids to be very creative.  There are 300+ similar sites like Friendster.

Officer B said, “We’re not just here to yank your chain.  You need to keep an eye on this stuff, just like there are friends you don’t want your kids hanging around with.”

There are 106 million MySpace users globally.  You can look for people in your zip code.

Officer B asked “Have you every googled your kids names.  You’ll be surprised what you find.”

Officer A spoke of positive aspects of social networking and the ability to connect with like minded people.

MySpace was created by people that used to be involved in spam.  Officer B asked, “Did you ever wonder why it’s free – you don’t spend a dime.  It’s free because of advertising (said in a negative way), you’re flooded with ads. Jeez, welcome to the 1990s, officer.

Officer B talked about MySpace blogs, access to music.  “Like Napster,” said Officer B.

“Do you know what pictures your kids uploaded to MySpace?” asked Officer B.

There are “dating groups on MySpace that are popular and can be explicit or dangerous.”

There are no ways to get rid of past pictures.  You can petition to remove content from MySpace, but once it’s online it’s everywhere.  The time to decide is before you post.  There have been hearings in congress about Xanga and MySpace, Facebook and high school and middle school kids.  Kids have been using their school email.

Kids should be taught to avoid putting personal information online and to use free email like Yahoo or Hotmail for access, not home or school email.

Officer B said, “We know we’re giving you the ‘Shock and All’” but these things are important.”  “Shock and All.”  Wow.

The officers check MySpace often, check students pages for suspicious or dangerous behavior.

Officer B said “Every time you access MySpace you are pinged to get info in the hope to spam you.”

A troubled parent asked “What if I don’t have my kid’s password.”  Officer A said, “It’s OK to be a parent.  As long as they are under age or living at home, you set the rules.  You should have their passwords.”

They mentioned (or maybe iparent?) a federal group with free training for parents about this stuff. 

[Looking at the site, it appears to be a well-balanced site with some great resources designed for many groups including educators, parents, and students; even very young students.  They describe a “Life Skills” unit that covers topics like online banking and multiplayer games.  This looks like a great site. ]

You need to be concerned with web safety at home but also other places like the library.  You can’t get on MySpace from school computers.  But there are ways around the system.  

There is software you can buy to block software at home, like netnanny. parental control software.  Spectorsoft? Different programs can monitor sites, time online.

I asked, “Why are you telling us these things?  These are things our children need to hear.  Are you discussing online safety in the schools?”  Right now they are getting the message out to parents to talk with their kids about it.  They get phone calls from parents a few days after these meetings saying that their child has gone home and erased the hard drive after the parents start looking at the computer.

I decided the meeting was useful in that it raised awareness, but I think it presented the web in a very negative light, especially starting out with pictures of half-naked teenagers drinking beer from a beer bong.  And relatively few solutions were presented and only a few positive uses of the web were mentioned in passing or as exceptions.  I guess the take away messages are:

  • Monitor online usage; both time and content.
  • It might not be a good idea to allow a kid to have a computer in their room behind a closed door.  Put the computer in a family room.
  • Hold onto kids’ passwords and check their sites often.  Be a parent.
  • Learn about your kids online activities and try it out yourself
  • Keep personal information off the web.
  • Things that are posted will last forever.
  • There is software to help monitor net usage.
  • Not everything online is bad.

Online safety is important and it’s good that it’s being addressed.  However, I am concerned that kids are not getting any positive instruction on web use.  I worry about knee jerk reactions when the first time kids, parents, and teachers hear about the web, online activities, and web utilities is when it’s associated with drunk, half naked gun-toting teens posting their pictures to MySpace and losing their full-ride scholarship.


Entry filed under: information literacy.

KM made simple Security and Schneier’s Beyond Fear

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Net Safety Lessons « Feed My Pet Brain  |  April 7, 2008 at 9:11 am

    […] Finally! They are talking to the kids not just the parents, which is a situation I’ve questioned before. […]

  • 2. Luke Gilkerson  |  April 11, 2008 at 10:17 am

    There is a real need for balance when it comes to Internet interactions. I think there are many positives to online interactions, but as with most things, it can be abused and people can wander into places where they could be, saying things they shouldn’t say. Good parenting will keep the lines of communication open and good parents will encourage common sense online.

    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on my Internet predator blog post:

  • 3. futhermet  |  April 11, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    I thought your post was much more balanced than the “Scared off the web” presentation I attended. I was very frustrated with the shock tactics the police officers were using.

    As I pointed out, much of their introduction was pictures of teenagers getting drunk. While the web amplifies problems associated with this behavior, and these pictures will live on the web forever, the web isn’t the root of the problem.

    I think it’s great and important to give practical and pragmatic advice…but maybe that’s not always as effective as scaring people?

  • 4. Luke Gilkerson  |  April 16, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Fearmongering gets more press, but we need to equip parents and teens with an understanding of how they play the KEY role in protecting themselves. I like your thoughts here.


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