Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Safe Cyber Space: Youth and Social Media

It is no secret the Internet can be a dangerous place, particularly when the user is unaware of its true potential. While most Internet users have acquired online best practices through their own trial and error, the many forms of social media magnify this process more intimately. Stories of teen suicide sparked by cyber bullying and other forms of virtual exploitation filled the news in 2010. While social media provides a platform for building networks of friends, it can also create a false sense of belonging for those yearning to fit in. When one or more members decide to be hurtful to another member, the damage can sometimes be irreparable.

Another form of social media that has found its way into mainstream news is “sexting.” The term “sexting” refers to sending nude, partially nude, or sexually suggestive messages using a texting device. In 2008, TRU, a global leader in research on teens and 20-somethings, conducted “the first public study of its kind to quantify the proportion of teens and young adults that are sending or posting sexually suggestive texts and images.” The study revealed that 20% of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19 have posted “nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves”, and an overwhelming 39% have posted “sexually suggestive messages.”1 These activities seem frivolous to these young mediators, but in the eyes of the law, they are felonies.

In a 2009 CBS news report, Harry Smith discusses a Pennsylvania case with CBS News legal analyst Lisa Bloom where six teens faced charges of child pornography for having nude images of each other on their mobile phones. If convicted, these children could spend years in prison and will be required to register as sex offenders, something that will follow them the rest of their lives. Although large numbers of teens are engaging in similar activities, Smith comments, “few realize they are breaking the law.”2

How can these children be held accountable if they are unaware these activities are illegal? One might argue in the traditional sense of the law, one cannot claim ignorance as a defense. However, these teenagers were given access to a global playground without proper instruction. Should this be cause for concern? Is it time to consider some sort of regulation or educational reform to ensure a safe environment for our kids’ digital activities? A fair comparison might be putting a loaded pistol in the hands of an unknowing six year old without the expectation of some sort of mechanical exploration. The underlying issue here is not that these activities are statistically overwhelming, or even that they are illegal. The real issue is the inherent dangers that accompany such activities. When the above loaded pistol goes off and kills someone because of the child’s ignorance of the mechanism, the parent becomes the responsible party simply because as an adult, certainly he or she knows the dangers of putting a loaded weapon in the hands of a child. Should the same hold true for the parent whose child cyber bullies a classmate to a suicidal-end?

Another alarming statistic the TRU study revealed was that as many as 15% of the teenagers they surveyed admitted to having posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves “to someone they only knew online.” Chat rooms are common places to meet people while surfing the Internet. Sparking a conversation with an online persona can be exciting, especially when that persona fills a void. In most cases, these types of relationships blossom into something completely innocent. However, if asked to insert nude personal photos into an online conversation, the child’s virtual pen pal may have something more sinister in mind. Sexual predators lurk in chat rooms waiting to pounce on their prey, while their child victims are none the wiser. They believe what is revealed in their instant messenger window, simply because they have no reason for doubt, if doubt is even possible in their young minds. Chat rooms are like any other form of social media for these kids. MySpace, FaceBook, and texting is all commonplace in their daily lives. Much like prior generations wrote a letter or phoned a friend, the youth of today rely on digital media as a necessary component of their social relationships.

Fortunately, law enforcement realized the dangers of online child predation and put in place systems to fight these types of crimes. In 2006, NBC Dateline commissioned The Intelligence Group to conduct a nationwide survey on “What are kids really up to on the computer?”3 Out of 500 responses from 14-18 year-olds, 58% said a person they had met online wanted to meet them in person, and 29% said that they had a “scary” online experience. The survey also revealed that around 50% of the teens, “did things online they would not want their parents to know about.” These, again, are alarming statistics. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009 there were approximately 22 million teenagers living in the U.S.4 If 23% of those teenagers chat with strangers online on a regular basis, and 58% of those same teens received requests to meet the stranger in person, the number of teenagers at risk, at any given moment, is approximately 2,934,800. That is a scary scenario that clearly illustrates the fact that a simple click of the mouse could effectively sign a child’s death warrant.

Social media is a wonderful tool for communication. It allows people to stay in touch, reconnect, make new connections, form online interest groups, quickly communicate and collaborate from afar, share ideas, images, and videos, all with minimal barriers or gate keeping. The free-flow of information runs rampant in this new age of digital technology, and since the inception of Web 2.0, the torrential outpour of creativity and expression has been both liberating and empowering. But as Jonathan Zittrain discusses in his book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, the very elements that make a free-flowing system strong are also its biggest dangers.5 For example, entering a dedicated chat room looking for an innocent conversation, could instead lead to disclosing personal information to an intruder with unsavory intentions. The freedom exists at both ends of the conversation. However, the opacity of the digital screen allows for deceit at either end as well. The unsuspecting chat room visitor has no idea who he or she is really talking to, while the individual on the other end is uninhibited to be exactly who he or she wishes to be.

The Internet, one of the greatest technological advancements in the history of mankind, has literally changed the way the world operates. Gen M, the first generation fully occupied by digital pacifiers, is hard-pressed to imagine a world without iPods and DVRs. Anything less than High-Definition television with high-definition video games is considered “old school”, and having a mobile phone, a personal computer, and Internet access is the norm rather than the exception. Just as parents teach their children how to traverse the real world, they are now faced with a second, much more illusive landscape, a digital terrain that is perhaps even more complex.

Where should instruction begin? A good number of children know more about the digital landscape than their parents. Elizabeth Englander and Kristin Schank speak on this very topic at They write, “Although kids are comfortable with technology, they are not necessarily knowledgeable about it — don’t confuse the two. We all need to talk with kids about technology. Don’t worry about how much you know or don’t know. Ask kids what’s happening online with them. Ask them to tell you (or show you) what they’re up to online. And keep in mind that even if you might not know how to do a particular thing, you do know that even online they should watch what they say and be civil to others. Don’t hesitate to make that message loud and clear.”6

If teaching begins at home and enforces the same message, regardless of the medium, the result should be universal. However, if one or both parents are digitally disengaged, an entirely different scenario could materialize. This is very important. The child must be prepared for both worlds, offensively and defensively. If the parents cannot provide this kind of comprehensive guidance, the next line of defense lies within the educational system, where indeed it should. In Utopia, the two would interplay. In reality that is not always the case. This is one of those cases.

The technological shuffling of the last 10 years alone is mind-boggling. Now that it is a part of everyday life it would be irresponsible for our educational systems not to proactively address these issues as part of their everyday curriculum. The tragedies and missteps of our youth over the last two years must serve as an immediate call-to-action, and our school administrators must arm themselves for this imperative. Instructors must be prepared to teach the tools needed for personal and professional survival while simultaneously stressing the importance of safety and civility.

A Safe Cyber Space is absolutely necessary for the well being of today’s youth. Digital educational curriculum needs to begin in kindergarten and be incrementally applied through the senior year of high school. It should be integrated within the learning environment where applicable to the exercise. For example, a module on penmanship or spelling need not require the aid of a computer. However, writing a short story using the spelling words from the week would benefit from the use of the computer keyboard in a program such as MicroSoft Word, with spell checker disabled of course. The child would then print out the assignment and turn it in to the teacher.

The primary objectives for grades K-3 are learning how to use a computer as a tool for particular problem-solving tasks. Additionally, the development of a closed wiki-style class community serves as an introduction to learning about collaborative environments. Individual blogs are set up for the child to use for self-expression and for other students to comment on. As the gatekeeper, the teacher supervises the network using specific examples to discuss acceptable versus unacceptable uses of shared communities. Offline worksheets could be developed as homework assignments asking various questions about network etiquette. These types of exercises could also benefit parents who may be inept to the digital world, perhaps enabling their growth along with their child’s. Introduction of other digital devices like mobile phones provide a way of familiarizing students with their uses while also helping the child to remember his or her parent’s phone number.

By the end of third grade, having mastered the various uses of the computer while also acquiring some sense of appropriate community conduct, limited Internet access should be integrated into the fourth-grade learning environment. Again, under the watchful eye of the instructor, fourth graders will learn about the World Wide Web and its various uses as an educational tool. The application of a class wiki will continue for collaboration, creativity, and conversation, still controlled but perhaps not as closely monitored. Less gate keeping allows for the perception of increased freedom, testing previous lessons on community etiquette.

These lessons should be reinforced at every grade level, however relaxed incrementally throughout the maturation process, but always monitored to uniformly address misconduct as necessary. The point is not to punish the child. The objective is to teach respect and constraint both online and off. A good offline exercise might be to sit in a circle and say one good thing about everyone in the class. One might argue these types of activities are not part of standard educational curriculum. However, in order for a Safe Cyber Space to be realized, these types of exercises are appropriate and necessary. It starts with an understanding of what should and should not be said or done while communicating with others. By building a foundation of mutual respect, the children in these programs will be intellectually and emotionally prepared to act and react responsibly after the community controls have been lifted.

Fifth grade is usually greeted with more in depth reading and writing assignments. Armed with the knowledge that the Internet is a useful educational and research tool, fifth graders receive open access to explore the areas in which their assigned topics lead them. Restrictions still exist in the form of barriers of entry to inappropriate sites, and any type of social media is still maintained at the classroom level in the form of the closed wiki model.

Grades six through ten continue in the same fashion with open Internet access for research purposes only. The class wiki model continues, with more emphasis on writing and sharing ideas through the students’ individual blogs. Commenting is also now required in order for students to start learning about critical thinking and discussion.

At this point, perhaps even before, a good number of students will have personal mobile phones. It must be anticipated and therefore addressed early. Appropriate cell phone use should be integrated within the same curriculum as respectful online community behavior, emphasized in a way that will register once kids start using them freely. Unfortunately, educational systems have no control over when a parent decides to give their child a mobile phone. What they do have control over, however, is teaching best practices regarding its use. Again, homework assignments focusing on appropriate versus inappropriate cell phone use could be beneficial to both the child and the parent. For example, writing a short paper exploring the possible ramifications of cyber bullying or sexting would certainly get the student thinking about these things in a more pragmatic manner.

By a student’s junior year he or she will try to buck the system in any number of ways, trying to declare their own independence while simultaneously searching for their own identity. The best line of defense for this age group is providing awareness. For this reason classes focusing solely on social media should be required starting with the junior year and continuing until graduation. Acting as a mentor, the class instructor will facilitate a discussion-based environment in which the “rules” of online etiquette are openly and critically addressed. It will continue a discussion that has been under construction since their kindergarten year, in preparation for this very moment. Students will learn how to build a personal online brand through the use of social media tools. They will learn what types of images and videos are appropriate for online disclosure, as well as keys to keeping the conversation civil and respectful.

In the senior year, this conversation continues but with increased professional emphasis. These lessons are imperative as students prepare to enter college or the work force. More and more companies are using FaceBook entries to screen potential employees. Our youth must be prepared to show they have the skills to act responsibly both online and off.

The above scenario is not too different from what is being emphasized currently in our educational environments, with a few exceptions. New tools of technology must replace the traditional tools of education. Teaching the appropriate uses of these tools incrementally throughout the maturation process will prepare our youth for the more illusive world they will come to depend on and interact with the rest of their lives. The emphasis on social media is extraordinary simply because it is an uncontrolled environment with potential unseen dangers. Requiring discussion in this area, allows for all variables to be explored in an open and honest forum. These types of exercises build awareness while creating better-informed and hopefully more responsible members of society.

1 The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and,
“Sex and Tech,” (, 2008)
2 CBS News, Smith, Harry, “Sexting Shockingly Common Among Teens,”
(, June 15, 2009)
3 Dateline NBC, “Most teens say they’ve met strangers online,”
(, April 27, 2006)
4 U.S. Census Bureau, “American Community Survey,” (, 2009)
5 Zittrain, Jonathan, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, (Harrisonburg, Virginia:
R.R. Donnelley, 2008)
6 Englander, Elizabeth and Schank, Kristin, “Reducing bullying and cyber bullying,”
(, October 6,

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