My New Facebook Friend…

Last month I got a new Facebook friend, my daughter. Later this month I’m going to my children’s school to talk to the 4th-8th graders (including my daughter) about the perils and opportunities of Social Media. This week, the New York Times published an article, “Teaching about the Web Includes Troublesome Parts” Sm that addresses this very topic. This confluence of events has spurred me to articulate the reasons that we allowed her to get a Facebook account because these reasons go to the heart of what I believe about education and parenting.

There’s no doubt that the Internet can be a scary place to let children roam. Clearly, the growing prevalence of young people with cell phones and access to computers, while not the cause of bullying, makes it even easier to engage in and is often more devastating to the victim. Equally, the Internet doesn’t create pedophiles but it does mean that they often don’t have to leave the comfort of their living rooms to find innocent children. But the truth of the matter is that, as with all things involving parenting, wrapping children up in cotton wool and not allowing them a degree of freedom, even when there are potential risks involved, is usually not the answer to raising curious, self-confident, independent young people.

My feelings about the Internet in general and Social Media in particular are akin to my feelings about letting my daughter go into the movie theater with a friend while I wait outside in the mall, or letting her walk the quarter of a mile down the road to our neighbor’s farm with her sister; as a parent I am nervous, maybe even terrified, but I know that she has to learn how to interact with the world without me holding her hand every moment. We talk to her regularly about talking to strangers and inappropriate touching and behavior from adults and the need to tell us if anything in that vein ever happens, and now we have added to those talks discussions about the dangers of the online world. We arm our children with information, warn them frankly of the dangers, closely monitor their activities as far as we can, talk to them regularly about what’s going on in their lives and try to intervene early on and forcefully when situations do arise, before they get out of hand.

We made it very clear to our daughter that she can only accept Facebook friendship requests from people she knows, and that if she isn’t sure she should ask us. We set all her privacy settings and let her know that if she changes them or ever blocks us from any content that she posts and we find out, we will immediately revoke her account. We’ve told her not to join groups or click on links without checking with us (one of her Facebook friends spread a virus that was initiated through such a link.)

One of the reasons that we let her use Facebook is because it gives her, as it gives us, the ability to connect with friends and family that she doesn’t get to see very much; she sees her ski team buddies very intensely for four months of the year, then doesn’t get to see most of them at all for the other eight months. Now she can communicate with them all year round. We have a lot of family and friends abroad, and Facebook helps her to maintain her connection to them.

Social Media, of one form or another, is an increasingly significant part of how a lot of people job hunt, network, socialize, communicate and relax. To try to “shield” children from it until they are in their teens seems to ignore the sheer inevitability of it given that the Internet, accessible from phones, portable gaming devices and a growing number of other devices, is now so much more than something to be accessed from a computer. But I think that it also ignores the potential to teach children the wonderful possibilities that the responsible use of Social Media can afford them. After all, if we want to raise creative, innovative children who can compete in this new world order, do we really want to wait until high school to introduce them to something that is such an increasingly prevalent part of adult life?

Quite a few of the 7th and 8th graders in my children’s school are my Facebook friends. In the case of more than one girl, their parents told them that she could ONLY get a Facebook account if she friended my husband and me. The parents knew that we are frequent users and that we would act responsibly if we saw their daughters involved in dangerous or inappropriate activities. This gets to the heart of one of reasons that I would encourage parents of tweens and up to get on Facebook and to allow their children to as well; if you’re all on Facebook, you get a view into your children’s lives, their conversations, their fights with their friends, their social activities that you really might not otherwise. One of the real problems with allowing younger people on Facebook is that they really don’t think before they type (actually, a lot of adults seem to have this problem as well); they don’t self-censor very well, but this also means that they don’t hide what is bothering them or making them happy. It can be a very powerful, unfiltered view into their world.

Of course, this lack of self-censorship is one of the real perils that children truly don’t get; they think that they post something, a video on YouTube or a status update on Facebook and that it’s ephemeral. Most of them have a certain naivety about the everlasting nature of so much information on the Internet. When I Google myself items will come up that I posted on Listservs 15 years ago or more. Children usually don’t get the concept that you put something out into the digital ether and there’s no taking it back, ever. Talking to a 13 year old about the importance for future job hunting of keeping a “clean” online profile is like trying to talk to a 13 year old about anything that isn’t in the next few months or so, uphill work. But this doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important discussion to have on a regular basis. As the New York Times piece above points out, the line between the public space and the private one is an increasingly blurred one. Children and young adults need to gain an understanding of that fact of life because it is something that will be even more of a truism in their futures.

In a world where some college students are being given an iPad by their schools, it’s clearly only a matter of time before this trickles down to high schools and even middle schools. Certainly, the potential to replace the number of textbooks that children carry around is very appealing. But this will inevitably mean that the issue of children’s online habits will become an even more important one to face squarely. Schools have always talked about plagiarism, but in a world where even 7 year olds are doing research online, it’s an issue that becomes more momentous. As many adults know too well, the temptation to just copy and paste is a real and recurring hazard. But this is an issue that can and should be addressed, and I’m sure is already an ongoing dialog in many classrooms. Just because the Internet makes plagiarism easier to indulge in and harder for teacher’s to catch doesn’t mean that children shouldn’t do their research online. They need to be taught the great opportunities that online research holds, as well as the perils, including questioning the credibility of online sources.

Social Media is increasingly being used by adults, including myself, as a way to engage with the enormous quantity of information that is now online. For the most part, I use Twitter as a glorified RSS feed, primarily following writers, bloggers and humorists who either link to their own pieces or to interesting pieces from around the web. I am also increasingly using Facebook in a similar way, though not to such a large extent. Being plugged into this huge body of online content seems to be almost a necessity for anyone trying to keep abreast of current and cultural events, politics, science and the arts. Helping our children understand the value of this content and how to navigate it thoughtfully would seem to me to be an increasingly important part of their education.

Something that I have come to realize, as blogs and sites like YouTube have sprung up over the last ten years or so, is how many people are creative and want to express that creativity. Anyone who claims, as corporate leadership often does when the topic of innovation comes up, that most people have no interest in being more creative, really has to take a closer look at the sheer volume of creative output that is posted every day in one digital form or another. I’ve seen this creativity expressed on my teenage friends’ Facebook pages; photos that they digitally alter, videos they post, blog entries they write and even sometimes in the nonsense fantasy scenarios they play out between themselves. I do believe that the Internet is enabling more people to express their creativity outside of their daily careers – writing this monthly blog is how I express mine. Every vacation for the past few years, I have written a daily blog of our adventures, and so has my daughter. With appropriate adult guidance and supervision, children can be encouraged to express their creative, innovative sides through the use of Social Media.

Teaching our children digital safety and etiquette is increasingly becoming as important as teaching them not to talk to strangers. Teaching them the possibilities that appropriate, aware use of Social Media has to offer it to help them navigate a powerful, increasingly pervasive reality of life.