Posted by Andrew Brandt
Last week, many of us read about yet another incident involving
MySpace, the social networking site that has become so popular with
teens and tweens. In the latest news, one teen was arrested and twenty
were suspended from school after taking part in a MySpace "community"
called I Hate [another student's name], in which the arrested teen
posted a blog item about shooting the subject of the blog in the face
with a shotgun. The same student also made anti-semitic remarks in
In this case, this was entirely the correct action to take. School
districts are a lot better at identifying Columbine-esque warning
signs, and they're not sitting idly by while students write harassing
and threatening things on blog pages about their fellow
students. These students were way out of line, and need to learn a
hard lesson about online misbehavior and consequences in the
But I see another danger here: Knee-jerk parental reactions shutting
down a line of communication between parent and child. I heard it from
the very first caller to a talk radio show I participated in last
Friday (RealAudio stream, Real player required), and I read vitually
the same thing from the very first commenter to the blog item Ramon
McLeod posted on Friday.
The reaction I'm talking about goes (approximately) as follows:
As soon as I found out what some kids do on MySpace, I scolded my
kid(s)/took the computer away and said they couldn't ever go back
Sarcasm alert: Yeah, that strategy always works. Kids couldn't just
use the computers at school or at friends' homes.
Seriously, I'm not out to minimize or mock a parent's (or a teacher's
or a school administrator's) desire to protect children. These parents
are freaked out because, well, sexual predators may actually know more
about their kids' online activities than they do. But, people, ask
yourselves: Is that the kid's fault? What's the parent's
responsibility to, you know, be even peripherally aware of what their
kids are doing online, not to mention (gasp) teach them right from
wrong? And is throwing down the gauntlet and building a wall around
your kids always the best way to protect them?
Schools have a role to play here, too. The almost ubiquitous presence
of computers in the classroom seem to beg for a curriculum about both
online dangers and responsible computer use, something that addresses
the "why" questions. These kids who love MySpace aren't just shouting
across the playground. They are becoming publishers, every single one,
with access to a potential audience of millions around the world. As
such, we need to teach them what it means to be a publisher, and how
to avoid getting into trouble.
But knee-jerk reactions are even more prevalent in some schools among
administrators: In one notable recent case, a teacher was suspended
and "escorted from the building" after the broadcast journalism group
she supervises produced a hard-hitting segment about the dangers of
Think about that: She helped teach an entire school about cybersafety,
in a way that engaged and motivated students...and was severely
punished for it.
Parents, schools, and the people who run MySpace have a tremendous
opportunity here. The publicity about the dangers of, for instance,
kids posting lurid, but make-believe, details about their lives could
lead to a great discussion about how online sexual predators
operate -- and how to protect yourself by not posting personal details
about your school, birthday, bar-hopping habits, or anything else that
could help a predator find victims. There are terrific resources out
there that can grease the wheels for such a conversation.
A whole generation of both kids and adults don't understand Internet
safety topics that are, in essence, the online equivalent of 'look
both ways before you cross the road' and 'don't talk to strangers.'
The adults' ignorance has made them fearful, and that fear leads to
irrational decisions being made -- to lock kids away from the
Internet, to suspend teachers who broach the subject of improper
behavior online -- in the name of ... what? Safety?
I worry that this trend could deal a crushing blow the possibility of
constructive dialogue between kids and adults about safety, online and
offline. My challenge to those folks is: prove me wrong.