April 20, 2010

EIE Comments on Facebook Safety


Facebook safety. It's still up to the parents, experts say

APRIL 20, 2010

Original Story in Medill News

Anne Hrabe, Wilmette mother of five, is vigilant about monitoring her children’s activities on Facebook.  She doesn’t allow them have their own account until high school, knows their passwords, sets rules about who they can friend, and demands kindness and appropriate language online.  "They love Facebook. It’s become an integral part of their lives," she said. "But they’re kids."

So she doesn’t leave things to chance. Hrabe sets strict social networking rules such as using all the privacy settings and regularly discusses good online decision-making with her kids. And she turns situations-- such as when a Facebook picture of a student drinking beer landed in the yearbook at her son’s high school-- into teaching moments.  Sound like a lot of work? It is. But with 400 million active users on Facebook and 93 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 using the internet, parents must monitor their children’s online activities as attentively as they monitor what the kids do offline, experts say.

The statistics come from a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center. With the dramatic usage numbers and the potential risks, Facebook added a new "safety center" to the site last week, a good way to increase awareness of social networking issues such as cyber bullying, stalking and inappropriate posting. But it isn’t a replacement for good parenting. 

Parents are responsible for teaching their children proper online behavior and helping them avoid dangerous situations, said Cris Clapp Logan, director of communication at Enough is Enough, a Washington, D.C.-based children’s internet safety group that helped advise Facebook in creating the center.

"Parents are still the first line of defense," she said. "They can’t leave it up to Facebook or up to their filtering and monitoring software."

It is common sense that kids are not ready to be left to run wild on social networking sites, said Larry Rosen, a professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills and the author of several books about children and their cyber activity.  You wouldn’t let your young child who can’t swim hang out near the pool unsupervised, he said, so why let them surf the internet alone?

"It’s your job to teach them how to swim," he said.

Hrabe agrees. Her children don’t fully grasp the long-term consequences of posting inappropriate or even mean things, she said. That’s why she needs to be supervising what they do on social networking sites, she said.  "If ‘mom is going to be mad’ is the motivation [to make good choices], that’s okay with me," she said.

Some 60 million status updates are posted each day on Facebook, 3 billion photos are uploaded to the site each month and more than 5 billion pieces of content (including notes and blog posts) are shared each week, according to current Facebook statistics. The site is teeming with personal information, which is why parents need to teach kids how to leave a "responsible digital footprint," Clapp Logan said.

"Online content lasts forever," she said, and can come back to haunt you when applying to college or looking for a job.

But in order to supervise their kids on social networking sites, parents must be willing to get familiar with the technology even if it is uncomfortable, said Nadine Norris, instructional technology coordinator for a school district in Palatine.

She has a Facebook account and is friends with her kids online, she said, so she can constantly see what they are doing in the cyber world.

"It’s an environment to them," Norris said. "Their friends are there, they’re hanging out just like they would offline. I want to be there."

The worst thing parents can do is try to take away social networking sites, experts warn. If parents take away access to the computer indefinitely or overreact to situations, kids will not feel comfortable talking to them in the future about online situations that arise, Norris said.

And parents shouldn’t view Facebook negatively, Clapp Logan said. It can be a great tool that encourages collaboration, communication and learning if it is used correctly and parents are engaged in their kid’s involvement.

"This is the social hub of the kids’ lives," she said. "This is the new cafeteria. This is the new meeting place. This is where kids can come and do great things."