If you believe the hype, just about everyone between the ages of 16 and 34 who thinks he or she is hip -- or would like to be so perceived as hip -- is logging into MySpace and having a wonderful time there. MySpace, which according to Bloggers Blog, has 90+ million users, describes itself as "an online community that lets you meet your friends' friends. You can share photos, journals and interests with a growing network of mutual friends!"
In the past year, such social networking sites as MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, and LiveJournal.com, have received a lot of press, most of it expressing concern about the risks teenagers face when they too freely share who they are online.
One fear is that teenagers will innocently and unthinkingly post pictures and other information that is irresponsible, and that might come back to haunt them at a later date -- pictures and statements, for example, that might make a potential future employer cringe.
Another fear is that online predators also are lurking in the social networking world. These fears are not without foundation. Nancy Willard has written a thought provoking article for Education World about the good and the bad aspects of social networking Web sites. Willard spells out three particular concerns about youth involvement in such sites: The first, as I've already mentioned, is that many teens using those sites are not making good choices. The second is that many parents simply are unaware of what's going on in that regard. Finally, as Willard wisely observes, "Sexual predators -- and likely other dangerous strangers -- are attracted to places where teens are not making good choices and adults are not paying attention."
MySpace, the most popular social networking site, has increased the number of its employees in order to closely monitor who does what in their environment. Government attempts to protect youngsters from the risks of online social networking are understandable, although questionably redundant. On May 9, 2006, the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) was brought before the House of Representatives by Republican Pennsylvania Representative Mike Fitzgerald. The proposed law would prohibit schools and libraries from providing minors access to those types of sites. But the fact is that CIPA, the Children's Internet Protection Act, already requires schools and libraries that receive federal funds to filter Internet content that is either obscene, constitutes child pornography, or is harmful to minors.
Moreover, while in school, children are much more likely to network face-to-face than online. The problems arise when children are at home, especially when parents allow unrestricted, unsupervised, unmoderated access to the Web.
Schools can provide a lot of help in that area. Acceptable Use Policies (AUP) should include prescriptions that cover student use of the Internet while off school property. Parents or guardians should be required to sign off on a commitment to discuss with their children the risks surrounding Internet use. Parents or guardians also should be required to sign off on a commitment to supervise Internet use by the minors in their charge.
Beyond the AUP, the best schools do everything they can to bring parents into the loop of their children's education. As ParentLine Plus put it so well, "Young people live and learn in two worlds -- home and school. The way the two connect and communicate can make an enormous difference to how children learn to manage in both places. If teachers, parents and young people all trust, listen and talk to each other, the final goal of helping children learn and develop to their best ability is most likely to be achieved."
Online social networks -- more hype than help? Certainly, what they offer in the way of social networking is questionably useful. Perhaps such Web sites as MySpace continue to survive only by slowly, but surely, transforming themselves into Google or Yahoo! look-alikes -- general purpose information and social resource sites. That's because more and more people -- young and old -- are realizing that social networking is a lot more fun, and a lot safer, when they do it face-to-face.
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