Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Growing up Online: a Review

Last night, I watched Frontline's Growing Up Online. It made some attempt to be balanced by having researchers make some positive comments about the Internet, but it only showed negative examples--a boy who commits suicide, a girl who finds forums for anorexics, another who posts risque pictures of herself, etc. I had to pause the show a lot in order to yell at the tv. First, I was shocked by how many parents had no clue. They hadn't bothered to learn email or word processing much less MySpace or Facebook. To them I say, figure it out. Set up an account. You don't have to use it all the time or at all, but you need to know what it is your kids are doing. I was also surprised by how many parents let their kids have computers in their rooms at a young age. Maybe by mid high school, a computer in the room is okay, but I still think having it in a common area is a better idea. But still, parents shouldn't try to be nosy--respect your kids' privacy. Don't lean over their shoulder every five minutes.

The worst parent was the woman who was the PTO president. She educated herself alright, by buying into the media hype about online predators. Then, when her son went to a concert among several hundred teenagers who were drinking and video-taped and photographed themselves doing so, she emailed all the other parents. As she said, about 50% of the parents thanked her for pointing out the material that had been posted online. Those parents were the clueless ones. The other 50% said either, "Mind your own business" or "What are you? Naive? This stuff happens all the time." After that, her son wouldn't talk to her, wouldn't tell her anything that was going on. In essence, she'd turned something private--an issue she had with her son--into something public, by emailing all the other parents. Ironic, I'd say. I was with the son. One commenter on the Frontline site said they thought she was doing a good job. However, I thought snooping and asking for passwords was the wrong way about it. She should have just talked to her kids. There's really not a need to pry unless you suspect something bad is happening. If you're talking to your kids regularly, you should know when something might be going on. She never said she suspected her kids of anything. She just figured they were doing bad things because the media told her so.

The discussion on the Frontline website goes back and forth about kids' rights to privacy or not, with some saying that they have no rights and others asserting that they do. I fall decidedly on the side of kids having a right to privacy. And hello, if your concern is what your kids are doing in public, then Google them, or search for them on Facebook or MySpace. That's public. And if you find something you don't like, talk to them about it. The suggestion many make about taking away the cell phone or the computer won't work. They'll use the library computer or their friends' computers. And then you'll settle into the false idea that your kids aren't online.

There was also a little bit on education and technology, with one teacher shunning technology altogether. I was rolling my eyes at her. On the other hand, I didn't appreciate the technophile saying he need to be an entertainer. If you're just using technology to entertain kids, you're doing it wrong.

All in all, I didn't think there were enough positive examples. Where are the kids who are doing creative things online? Who feel disconnected, but find good friendships online? Who use their online world to help them work through problems constructively? I think there are plenty of these. We just don't hear about them because parents aren't going to call the news show and say, hey, my son created a cool movie online.

I do think it's important to understand that bad things can happen online (just like the real world)--cyberbullying, even online solicitation--and that parents should talk to their kids about their online life. We have talked to our kids, 8 and 12, about being online, about not giving out personal information. We limit their time online. When they're online, we ask what they're doing, who they're talking to. Most of the time, even when playing online games, they're playing with kids who live down the street. When I was 12, I was on the phone all the time. My son is chatting through Runescape, mostly with people he knows. He's also already participated in a boycott online when they changed the game because of a few griefers. For now, I feel his online activity is positive. And I hope that will continue. Perhaps because both Mr. Geeky and I have online lives and we talk about the pros and cons all the time, our kids understand that being in the public eye means being responsible. That's a message that didn't get through in the Frontline piece last night. There really wasn't a middle ground. It was almost like the piece showed these kids as if they were part of another culture that we'd found on a remote island and everything they did was mysterious and odd and needed to be squelched and brought in line. We need to remember: they are us.