Back-to-school time is an excellent time for kids, parents, and teachers to think and talk about the safe and appropriate use of the Internet and social-networking tools.
My message to parents and teachers is simple: embrace the technology that kids use, recognize that whatever you may lack in technology knowledge you make up in wisdom, and remember that you, too, were once a kid. Your first reaction to kid activity that may be a bit disturbing shouldn't be to freak out and shut down access but to take a deep breath, talk with (and listen to) the kids, and do everything you can to encourage dialog.
And try to become familiar with the technology your kids use. That doesn't mean you necessarily have to be their friend on Facebook or MySpace, but before you start trying to control how they use social-networking technology, make sure you understand it.
Teachers should attempt to use social networking as part of the educational process. Whether they know it or not, kids are engaged in informal learning through their use of social networking, so why not use the same technology for formal learning? And while you're at it, incorporate digital citizenship and media literacy into your teaching.
As my ConnectSafely co-director Anne Collier pointed out in Social media literacy: The new Internet safety, media literacy and critical thinking "is protective against manipulation and harm." Encouraging kids to practice good digital citizenship helps protect all young people, because "behaving aggressively online more than doubles the risk of being victimized."
As per kids, Hemanshu Nigam, the chief security officer at News Corp. and MySpace offers some Online Safety and Back to School advice especially suited to youth who use social-networking services like MySpace and Facebook (MySpace is one of several companies that provide financial support for ConnectSafely). He starts off with the usual internet safety advice: "Don't post anything you wouldn't want the world to know" and "don't get together with someone you 'meet' online unless you're certain of their identity." Then, perhaps a bit uncharacteristic of his background as a former federal prosecutor, Nigam also provides advice about the compassionate and kind use of social networking:
- Post with respect: photos are a great way to share wonderful experiences. If you're posting a photo of you and your friends, put yourself in your friends' shoes and ask would your friends want that photo to be public to everyone. If yes, then you're uploading photos with respect.
- Comment with kindness: compliments are like smiles, they're contagious. When you comment on a profile, share a kind word, others will too.
- Update with empathy: sharing updates lets us tell people what we think. When you give an opinion on your status updates, show empathy towards your friends and help them see the world with understanding eyes.