Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Online identities, anonymity, and consequences for digital behavior

I was interested to learn yesterday’s print (as well as online) edition of the local paper in Lubbock, Texas, has a few articles about blogging and digital social networking which provide a slightly more balanced view of these tools than more typical, “MySpace and blogging are evil” sort of headlines. Both articles are written by AJ writer Tracy Simmons.

In the first piece, “Today’s teens are bilingual: They speak English and text message,” I would amend the following recommendation included in the sidebar on Internet Safety:

Don’t lie about your age.

I don’t encourage anyone to lie, but online I think there can be wisdom in disguising facts about your true identity. My daughters are not old enough yet to have interest in MySpace, but when they do I won’t encourage them to put their real birthdate into an online profile there or elsewhere. Not only is your birthdate a bit of identifying information used by banks and others to verify your identity (and therefore a good thing to not make available online) it also can invite unwanted attention online. I think it is highly advisable for young people to use aliases and NOT reveal their exact age via online profiles. In my own MySpace profile, I ran into some problems when I listed my age as over 100. It is clear the MySpace admins (and likely others) running digital social networking sites want users to reveal their correct age, for purposes that include showing targeted advertising aimed at the person’s demographic group. Unfortunately, depending on your gender and age, details in your online profile can also invite unwanted attention from other users.

I found the first bit of Internet safety advice given by Tracy to be well intentioned, but also thought provoking:

Be as anonymous as possible.

If someone follows this advice, at what point in life should someone consider it safe to NOT be anonymous online? At age 18? After getting married? After securing fulltime employment? I don’t think everyone giving out advice about Internet safety has thought through this question and the issues it raises. Additionally, people making this recommendation may understand the real threat of predators on the Internet, but may not fully acknowledge one of the most basic reasons people (especially youth) go online and create online profiles. Their purpose is often to network and interact with their face to face friends in virtual environments, more than to make new online friends. Remaining anonymous is therefore counterproductive to this goal of connecting with real friends in virtual spaces.

Certainly the advice implicit in this recommendation for anonymity and shared explicitly in the article elsewhere is well founded: Carefully consider the things you write online, because others you don’t even know will likely read them and form opinions about you based on them. A key message for digital citizenship and internet safety discussions among learners of all ages is how online contributions form a permanent record which people are writing into cyberspace, that may or may not be editable and deletable in the future. Just ask many college students recently participating in fraternity and sorority “rush” activities. Profiles on Facebook, MySpace, Xanga and elsewhere are now used by many rush candidate evaluators to learn “the rest of the story” about applicants who may have presented a different picture of themselves in person than the one revealed online not only through their own profile, but also by the contacts/friends associated with their online profiles.

My final reflection and comment on this article series concerns parental consequences for digital misbehavior. In the article “Teens express hopes, dreams, wants on blogs,” the question of how parents should discipline their children for making poor choices online is raised. The final quotation in the article is from Amy Gonzales, a local middle school counselor who says:

Parents need to have access to anything on Myspace. They need to get in and look at the blogs their child has written. If students are being inappropriate, they should lose their blogging privileges.

I definitely agree that regular parental/child communication about online activities is important, but my question regards the point on consequences. Taking away a child’s ability to blog and engage in digital social networking is more complex than denying them physical access to a resource like a bike, skateboard, or car. I agree part of the consequence for digital misbehavior can be (depending on the offense) a loss of that privilege for a timeperiod, but what length of time is appropriate for what types of offenses? What are the categories of offenses?

in trouble

Digital social networking environments like Imbee provide parents with daily emails about comments and posts made by their children to others in the online environment. This type of accountability and transparency in online activities is not enabled by commercial DSN sites like MySpace. Are parenting classes available in your area which are addressing these kinds of concerns, as well as making parents aware of available resources? I sense there is a need for people aware of tools like these to share that knowledge with others: via PTA meetings, church gatherings, school newsletters, articles in the local paper, and spots on local radio and television programs. I think schools need to adopt a more informed and proactive stance on digital social networking to help equip parents as well as young people with additional knowledge to make informed decisions and digital choices.

If you enjoyed this post and found it useful, subscribe to Wes’ free newsletter. Check out Wes’ video tutorial library, “Playing with Media.” Information about more ways to learn with Dr. Wesley Fryer are available on

On this day..



, ,




One response to “Online identities, anonymity, and consequences for digital behavior”

  1. damien Avatar

    Good points. I think for grownups, especially writers and musical artists, however its okay to develop a web-persona. With ip’s freely scanned and reported as readily as they are nowadays, anonymity is becoming less and less posible. having said that, I think you are 100% correct for the kids. I have a 2 and 8 y/o and you better bet when the oldest starts branching off from, I’ll be assigning him the id of a 100 y/o. Great post.