The August 2006 WebMD article “Parenting in ‘MySpace’ Era Challenging” offers some good advice with a balanced tone that is welcome amidst many news articles fanning the flames of fear when it comes to teens and DSN (digital social networking.) Unfortunately, however, some of the advice offered in the article paints ALL instant messaging as evil, and this is a label the technology does NOT deserve. Douglas Levin, senior director of education policy for Cable in the Classroom, is quoted in the article as saying:

“Social networking should not cause you to panic,” he [Levin] tells WebMD. “Make sure your kids know not to post personally identifying information — including pictures and videos of themselves — and not to meet anyone in person that they have only met online. And to let you know whenever they see something that makes them uncomfortable.”

The article indicates that many parents HAVE and ARE taking steps to address Internet safety issues at home:

The good news is that 94% of parents or legal guardians polled have taken actions to ensure their kids’ safe use of the Internet, according to results of a new survey presented here. These actions include monitoring their children’s online activity, setting time limits, talking to their children about safe usage, and installing software to block certain online activities.

While the above quotations are positive, I read the next one with dismay:

“For teens and tweens, it’s just important to set ground rules and it’s also important that if kids do have a MySpace page or a page on one of the other social networking sites that parents go and look at it and monitor what their kids are doing online and who they are talking to,” Levin tells WebMD. “Parents need make the Internet a safer place for kids by disabling things like instant messenger [IM] and chat [functions].”

Yes parents definitely need to monitor their childrens’ use of the Internet and communicate with them regularly, about their activities online and in the F2F world. The last sentence is the one to which I object. Disabling all IM for all young people, regardless of age or ability? This sounds like the policies of most school boards in the United States. πŸ™ Instead of banning all IM, parents need to be engaged with their children in finding ways to practice SAFE digital social networking. Tools ARE available that permit limited and monitored DSN by children at home and elsewhere. Macintosh OS X’s AIM-compatible IM client iChat, for example, includes options for built-in parental controls so children can just instant message with family and friends who parents have approved for their buddy lists. Walled-garden DSN environments like imbee permit parents to monitor and even moderate blog posts and comments by their children. I am not familiar with parental control IM options for Windows-based computers, but I’m sure some are out there. This article makes it sound like the only responsible choice for parents is to ban ALL IM use by their kids, and I think that absolutist position is flawed and even dangerous.

It is good to see articles that suggest parents are engaging in more dialog with their children about issues of Internet safety and safe DSN, but unfortunate that some “experts” paint an unreasonable and false picture of technologies like IM. I get a lot of spam, and I bet you do too. Does that mean we should ban all email? There is a potential to abuse IM. Should we ban all IM? That is the approach taken by many schools and school leaders today on their school networks, and that approach fails to adequately address the challenges and opportunities available in the 21st century learning and economic landscape.

People who have read “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century” by Tom Friedman often emerge from the experience worried that workers in other countries, like India and China, are going to take away many jobs from US workers. The fact is, they are going to– but there are still more opportunities than we can imagine today available in the information landscape for knowledge sharing and profit-making. Does anyone seriously think we are doing our children a favor in this highly competitive, highly-technological workforce landscape by banning tools like instant messaging in schools? Quite the opposite. If US schools continue to broadly ban social networking websites and tools like IM instead of helping students, teachers and parents learn to safely and powerfully use these tools, they will fail to prepare students for the digital present and the digital future we are rapidly moving towards. In many cases, I think our schools ARE failing to provide an adequate digital preparation for our students. This needs to change.

I found the link to this article on the CPYU website: The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.

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