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By Nancy Willard

Most educators working with middle and high school students are aware of the explosive involvement of youth on social networking sites. Few are prepared to deal with it. Internet safety expert Nancy Willard discusses the risks and benefits of such sites and offers schools a comprehensive approach to addressing student Internet access. Included: Advice for parents and teachers; online guidelines for students.

Educators working with middle and high school students likely are aware of the explosive interest and involvement of youth in such online sites as MySpace, Xanga, Facebook, Live Journal, and the like.

These and similar sites are a new phenomenon called "online social networking." In online social networking environments, youth register and establish profiles that provide personal information and photos. Then, they make connections or links with other members who share interests or connections -- so-called "friends." Members engage in a variety of forms of communication and information sharing, which can include personal Web pages, blogs, and discussion groups.


Online Guidelines for Students

Online safety and responsible use guidelines for students include:

* Be kind to others. Think how you would feel if someone posted similar things about you.

* Think before you post. Material posted in these communities is public, could damage your reputation, or could be used to harm you. It is not private!

* Take steps to protect yourself and others from bullying and harassment. Report concerns to the Web site and to a trusted adult.

* Report to an adult if someone posts threats of violence or self-harm. Such threats could be real threats. Don't post threats yourself. Someone might take you seriously.

* Develop "stranger danger" detection skills. People online might not be who they seem to be. Develop a safety plan for meeting online friends that is approved by your parent.

* Stop the predators. If you have been contacted by someone you think might be a sexual predator, report it to a trusted adult.


Problems are associated with these social networking sites, but the sites themselves generally are not the problem. Review the sites and look at the User Agreements or "Terms." These sites do seek to prohibit harmful activities. But with hundreds of thousands -- or millions -- of registered members, the sites cannot be expected to engage in effective "babysitting."

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

Social networking sites are very attractive environments for teens, as well as for adults. Such sites present opportunities for self-expression and friendship building. Youth "play time" in such environments can build skills that will be a foundation for career success in the 21st century. Many teens are safely and responsibly engaged in such communities.

Legitimate concerns do exist about youth involvement on these sites, however. Those concerns are grounded in three basic factors: 1) The sites are attracting many teens, some of whom are not making good choices. 2) Many parents are not paying attention to what their children are posting on the sites. 3) Sexual predators -- and likely other dangerous strangers -- are attracted to places where teens are not making good choices and adults are not paying attention.

Some teens are engaging in unsafe or irresponsible activities that include:

  • Unsafe disclosure of personal information -- providing potentially dangerous or damaging personal information. Many teens appear to have no understanding that what they post in those communities is public, potentially permanent, and accessible by anyone in the world.
  • Addiction -- spending an excessive amount of time online, resulting in lack of healthy engagement in major areas of life.
  • Risky sexual behavior -- becoming seduced by a sexual predator or child pornographer, posting sexually suggestive material or self-producing child pornography, or making connections with other teens for sexual "hook-ups."
  • Cyberbullying -- being cruel to others by sending or posting harmful material online or through a cell phone, or by engaging in other cruel actions.
  • Dangerous communities -- at-risk youth making connections with other at-risk youth or adults to discuss and share information, which can result in a shared belief in the appropriateness of potentially very harmful activities.

WHAT SCHOOLS SHOULD DO

Is it appropriate for students to be participating in commercial social networking sites while at school? Probably not. It is advisable that schools seek to limit all non-educational, entertainment use of the Internet -- including social networking activities -- through the district Internet system.

Can and should schools block access to the sites? Well, they can try.

When the Internet first came into schools, the primary concern was youth access to pornography. Filtering software was promoted as the tool to effectively deal with that concern. Current concerns deal more with what students are posting, as well as how and with whom they are communicating. Do a search on the terms "bypass Internet filter" and you will see how easy it is for youth to find information on ways to get around the school filter.

Youth are unlikely to try to get around the school filter to access pornography because it would be pretty obvious -- even from a distance -- what they are looking at. Many youth are highly addicted to involvement in these social networking sites, however, and are willing to take the risk to use a proxy to access those sites, when it is far less likely that their access will be detected.

Should schools be concerned about off-campus Internet activities? Yes. Involvement in those communities might negatively impact student wellbeing and the quality of the school environment. Students might post material on the sites that harms other students, provides clues or direct threats about suicidal or violent intentions, or provides indications of hate group or gang involvement, or drug sales and use.

WHAT SCHOOLS CAN DO

A comprehensive approach to addressing student Internet access is necessary. That approach requires:

  1. A clear policy with a strong focus on educationally valuable use of the Internet -- no "Internet recess." The policy must be supported by curriculum and professional development, and a clear expectation for teachers that all student use of the Internet should be for high quality, well-planned instructional activities.
  2. Student education about online safety and responsible use.
  3. Effective technical monitoring.
  4. Appropriate consequences. Schools and districts should consider a full review of Internet use management policies and practices. A needs assessment and evaluation of Internet use would provide helpful insight. Safe school personnel must be involved in that process.

All safe school personnel -- principals, counselors/psychologists, and school resource officers -- should be well informed about the sites and associated concerns. Ensuring that safe-school personnel have the ability to immediately override the school filter to visit those sites to review material in the event of a report of concern is essential.

Internet safety and responsible use is everyone's concern, but it is especially a concern for parents, because most youth Internet use occurs at home. Schools can help by providing information and guidance to parents and encouraging parental involvement in their children's online activities.

A "just say no" or "just say block" approach will not be effective in preventing youth involvement in online communities or in addressing concerns associated with them. Proactive strategies to help students gain the knowledge, skills, and motivation to make safe and responsible choices, and continued adult involvement are necessary.

About the Author

Nancy E. Willard, Director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, has degrees in special education and law. She taught at-risk children, practiced computer law, and was an educational technology consultant before focusing her professional attention on issues of youth behavior when using information communication technologies. She has spent more than a decade focusing on issues of Internet use management in schools. Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Cruelty, Threats, and Distress, a professional resource for educators, has been published by the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. Information is available at Cyberbully.org. Willard also is working on a book for parents entitled Raising CyberSavvy Kids: Empowering Children and Teens to Make Safe and Responsible Choices Online (and Remaining "Hands-on" to Ensure They Do).

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