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Doug Johnson's Tech Proof

Seven Things All Adults
Should Know About Social Networking


The Cool Technology Paradox: A technology is no longer cool once adults adopt it. Therefore, no adults will ever use a cool technology.

Many parents have become aware that their children are leading double lives -- one in the physical world and one in the virtual world.

A series of television news "exposs" on the dangers of sites like MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Xanga, and other social networking Web sites popular with children and adolescents caused parents to
1) see if their children had such accounts, and
2) call their children's schools to make sure such sites were not available to their children there.

The knee-jerk reaction by most school districts was to block a wide swath of social networking sites. Problem solved.


Here are seven things all adults need to know about social networking sites.

1. Social networking is enormously popular with young adults. Studies show that most students consider themselves Internet "content" producers -- and that content, much of it personal, is often displayed in blogs and other social networking spaces. Facebook alone has more than 300 million active users.

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2. Friends are probably just that. The social networking culture of teens is unfamiliar to most adults and is easily misinterpreted. Social networking sites serve as an introduction, a diary, and a "brag" space for many students. Links on an individual's MySpace site, for example, to dozens of "friends" of the opposite sex can be misinterpreted as promiscuity by culturally unaware adults. But as Danah Boyd, UC Berkley researcher, writes, "A MySpace friend link isn't exactly a long-term commitment. In the spirit of inclusiveness, many teens make a point of accepting nearly anyone who submits a 'friend request'"." (Poulson, Kevin. A MySpace Cheat Sheet for Parents. Wired News. February 27, 2006.)

3. Blocking sites at school won't keep kids away from social networking sites. Schools are reacting to social networking sites by simply blocking them -- often at the price of blocking useful resources as well. By working around the filter or simply using unblocked filters at home or in public libraries, kids will get access and will consider schools increasingly irrelevant in their lives. That means we need to give kids access to social networking environments, but also teach them how to use such sites safely.

4. Some degree of danger does exist for users of social networking sites. Reports from Maine to California indicate that predators do indeed use such sites to converse with teens and possibly lure them into physical contact. Teaching students to not divulge too much personal information and to treat online strangers with caution should be part of every school's safety curriculum.

5. Young people need to understand that material posted on the Internet is public and might have unintended implications. Although most students have their peers in mind when they post, they need to be aware that adults can and do visit social networking sites as well. And information on them can remain available for a very long time. A poster (Good Signs) produced by Minnesota State University, Mankato, asks students "Who might see your online profile?" and goes on to list: Your friends, Random students, Professors, Employers, Your coach, Campus Security, Law enforcement, Sex offenders, Residential Life Staff, University Judicial Board, Parents, and Grandma.

5. Social networking organizations are working toward a safer online experience for users. Online safety expert Nancy Willard reports on the efforts MySpace is taking to create a safe online environment for teens. (Willard, Nancy. My Visit to MySpace. WWWedu. March 22, 2006) "But," she says, "parents should not expect MySpace or any other Web site to do their job for them!!! These sites are not babysitting operations."

6. Teachers might want to check to see if they have had a social networking account created for them. You might Google yourself to see if your students already have created a Facebook or similar account for you. Just guessing here, but it might not contain the same information you would have chosen for yourself.

7. Social networking has value. Technology Director, Jason Johnson reminds us:
"Teen blogs are not about the technology -- they are about feelings of belonging and being loved. They are about trying on different personalities. They are about someone who feels isolated connecting with others who share their interests or insecurities. They are about all the same things that have existed for hundreds of years, hidden in notebooks and scribbled on bathroom walls and whispered over telephones. The content of bears discussion, not obstruction. It is where some schools and parents are looking to better understand and aid their children and students. Our dialogue should teach them to use the site effectively and about what they can hope to accomplish with it." (The Case for Social Networks)

What's a teacher to do? Stay informed about student uses of technology. Build student trust by maintaining an open mind about new social phenomena. Teach students about potential hazards of all online environments.

Oh, and remember that we were kids once too and our teachers worried about us.

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Updated 10/06/2009