I led a question-filled discussion this evening for an hour and a half with parents at Westminster Presbyterian Church of Oklahoma City, titled “Internet Safety and Social Networking for Parents.” Of the presentations and workshops on Internet safety and safe digital social networking I’ve led to date, I think this one was the best received and most helpful. I was much more focused and specific in the advice I shared with parents about content filtering and other topics than I have been in the past, and we spent time actually exploring MySpace and other social networking sites– places many of the parents had not ventured previously online. I will be posting the full audio recording of the session along with some additional commentary over on “Eyes Right” soon. (I’ll post it there since this was a presentation for a Christian audience and included some points that were explicitly religious, rather than the strictly secular perspectives/points that I generally share in presentations about Internet safety.)
The toughest question of the evening regarded my recommendation that parents sit down with their teenager, explore their social networking “friends” profile pages, set up a social networking account of their own and have their teen “friend” them so they can view and check their online profile periodically. One parent of a young teenage boy reported that her son refused to let her see his MySpace profile or let her “friend” him, because the things he was writing there were private and he didn’t feel like he needed to let his parents in on all his conversations.
This situation raises a variety of issues and questions, and I’m not sure I responded well to this parent’s questions of what to do. In reflecting about this afterwards, I’ve thought that the central issue is whether it is OK for anyone to post ANYTHING online that s/he regards as private and confidential. Because kids often setup MySpace profiles that are “private,” I think they have an expectation of privacy for the content they post and share there. I think that perception of privacy is false, however, and potentially dangerous. Today’s teenage friends can become tomorrow’s ex-friends, and there are NO guarantees about others keeping information posted online confidential forever. I think people of all ages should regard digital communication technologies, including email as well as social networking sites, as PUBLIC spaces where the information shared could appear on the front page of the school or city paper the following day. That was one of the key pieces of advice shared by lawyer Celynda Brashner at METC last year in a presentation titled, “Policy, Privacy and Practical Legal Issues for Teachers, IT and Others.” Don’t ever email something (or post something online, even in a “private” social networking site page) which you don’t want to see in a courtroom presented as evidence in a case.
I think there are many young people using social networking websites who do NOT have this perspective. There are not easy answers to this situation, and I’m very reluctant to pretend I have all “the answers” when it comes to difficult parenting situations involving or not involving digital technologies. I certainly think it is important to maintain open lines of communication with your child, but I also think as a parent it is important to establish rules and boundaries for virtual/digital interactions as well as face-to-face ones.
Should children have a right to privacy in their own home? I think it is fine for kids to keep their own diary, and have a right to keep those thoughts private and secret from everyone else– including parents. I don’t think kids should treat social networking websites, like MySpace, as an online diary where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, however. As the story of the high school principal who setup a MySpace profile and caused some students to become irate when he left comments on their pages reportedly said, “It’s NOT your space. It’s the PUBLIC Internet.” This is a key concept of social networking which I think youth, in some and perhaps many cases, fail to fully comprehend.
What suggestions or advice would you share with a parent in this situation?
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