Parenting in the Online World

It is in theory a theme of this blog to discuss issues related to parenting and managing technology.  And I do.  A quick search of parenting and technology or kids and technology will yield quite a few posts.  Laura pointed to this New York Times article about how parents’ concerns about the Internet have shifted from worrying about online predators to concern over cyber bullying.  Frankly, I think the shift is good.  The likelihood that a child will be harmed by an online predator is very, very slim while the chances that they’ll be exposed to harmful comments and even hurt by them by friends and acquaintances is pretty certain, sadly.

Laura asked about parental security software and I rejected the idea completely in my comments.  I think software to “protect” your kids from bad things online is pretty silly, actually.  First, it’s not perfect at determining what’s bad, and it might block good things and not block all the bad things.  Second, if, as a parent, you think it is blocking all that it needs to, you might stop paying attention to what your kids are doing online.  The best way, I think, to help your kids navigate the online world is to stay involved.  Here are some things you need to do:

1. Get online yourself.  Set up a Facebook account.  Figure out how it works.  Friend your kids–yes, friend them and don’t let them block you.  Do not, however, post things about what your kids post publicly.  That’s just mean.  If you have a problem with something, talk to them about it.

2. Keep the computer in a public place and check in with your kids while they’re online.  Stand over them and ask, “So, what are you looking at?”  Ask lots of questions about what they’re doing or have been doing online.  Do it in a way to show interest–your kids will find some funny and interesting things that you will never find–but also have a critical eye about what they’re viewing and think about whether it’s appropriate.

3. Talk to your kids about appropriate behavior online.  We started with not posting personal information like address and phone number.  Now we’re talking about posting things that might get them in trouble when applying to college or a job.

4. Limit the amount of time your kid spends online.  This is the hardest for us.  Since we both work online and play online, we blur the distinction.  Our kids can’t tell if we’re working or playing while we’re on the computer and we’re on pretty constantly.  The same is becoming true of our teenager.  He had to make a video for class and a lot of his assignments are posted online.  As a typical teenager, he multitasks, switching between Facebook, YouTube and his schoolwork.  We’re just beginning to talk to him about limiting the multitasking.

The site mentioned in the NY Times article, Common Sense Media, is a good one and one I’ve mentioned to parents and teachers.  There, you can find out trends and if your teens or kids aren’t forthcoming about what’s happening online, can give you some material to work with when asking questions.  They also offer programs and curriculum for schools, which some schools are adopting.  It’s a very good idea.

Even with all of the checking up and checking in, your kids will do things you don’t know about.  Geeky Boy uses the IM feature in Facebook more than anything.  I have no access to those messages.  He also texts a lot on his phone.  Again, I don’t see those.  But I ask about them.  Over spring break, his phone kept buzzing and  he kept texting and I asked, “Who are you texting?” And thus, found out about the girlfriend.  We have rules, which he’s been mostly good about following.  The phone cannot be out during family interactions–at the dinner table, during a family outing, etc.  It has to stay in the office during the evening (to avoid middle of the night texting).  And it will get taken away if his grades fall.  Yes, it’s a brave new world, but it seems better to me than some of the things I did as a teen, most of which involved being in places where my parents had no way of contacting me if they even knew where I was.

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Is this my beautiful Internet?

Via Scholarly Kitchen, a link to this ReadWriteWeb post that many people confused for Facebook in its new incarnation.  That’s right, some people landed there via a Google search and thought they were at Facebook.  Because, really, a large majority of people don’t know the difference between an address bar and a search bar, much less how to bookmark something.  Sigh.  To me, it’s a good argument for teaching people the rudimentary elements of how the web and browsers work at a fairly early age.  I fought this (and still do, to some extent) when teaching faculty how to use technology.  The crazy ways I saw people getting to Blackboard: first, go home (which was set to the college home page), then to the library, then to “for faculty”, then click Blackboard.  Four steps instead of typing in the url.  I would often try to show them how to type it in or bookmark it.  No, I’ve got this series of steps memorized, it’s easier this way, really.  As long as people follow recipes for doing things on the Internet instead of understanding how it works, things like this will happen, and we won’t get people to use or experience the Internet critically.  One commenter wondered why all these people still had computers since they must have all fallen victim to a million phishing scams and lost all their possessions.

Digital Nation

Last night, I got into my pjs early, snuggled into bed and watched Frontline’s Digital Nation.  It’s a follow-up of sorts to their Growing Up Online, which I wrote about when it came out and got some response from at least one teacher featured in the show.

Growing Up Online came out 2 years ago.  I was in a different place then.  We all were.  There are many aspects of the Internet I’m hugely enthusiastic about, but I’m starting to have reservations about things like multi-tasking and the amount of time we spend online.  I could sympathize with Rachel Dretzin, who says at the beginning, that she felt uneasy when she realized that while her whole family was in the same room together, each person was on a screen, separately doing their own thing.  That describes our house on most days, and some days, it feels like coziness and togetherness, and others it feels like we’re all living separate lives.  In my former job (and sometimes in my current work), I felt the need to be overly enthusiastic, just to get past the naysayers, whom I still think are ignoring some of the great things about the online world.  Now, I’m feeling more skeptical.  I’m more careful and thoughtful about the amount of time I spend online and what I’m doing there, and I use that same critical eye when I’m working with people to use technology effectively.

I could not have taught my class without the Internet.  And not just because the Internet is a tool teachers can use effectively in their teaching, but because I used it extensively to actually build the class.  I was able to find similar classes online, tap into my Twitter network to ask for suggestions for things, search Google, Diigo, and Delicious for appropriate tools and material.  If I’d been teaching it pre-Internet, I’d have a boring textbook and the class would be much less information packed and much less vibrant than it currently is.  That would be a loss.  But the Internet also enables my students to be on Facebook and email while I’m teaching, only loosely paying attention sometimes.  I’m torn about “disallowing” that.  It’s kind of impossible in a computer lab.  Mostly I try to engage them, ask them questions.

There was some discussion of that in the show, of needing to reach students where they are, but also of students believing that they’re successful, not just in spite of their multi-tasking, but because of it.  Some early research suggests that they’re completely wrong.  Part of my exhaustion this week, has been because I’ve actually mostly been focused on one thing at a time, spending an hour or two doing one thing, then shifting to something else.  I think I’m out of practice.

There was also a fair amount done with video games.  And the show displayed both the good and bad things about video games.  They showed a kid that was “addicted” to gaming, and also groups of friends who were getting together in real life, but who’d known each other for years via World of Warcraft (more on that in the WoW Wednesday post).  I’m on the fence about this one.  As I said in an earlier post about this topic, my son and I especially are online playing games quite a bit.  I would say that he can play up to 3 or 4 hours a day.  We’re not very consistent about our limits, though when grades drop, we get pretty strict.  Part of me feels anxious about this.  On the one hand, I know that the complexity of the game makes it hard just to spend an hour playing.  On the other hand, I think Geeky Boy should expand his horizons.  Unlike some of the kids in the show, though, he’s still an avid reader and plays sports, but doesn’t do that many other things.  Sometimes, I think it’s easier for us to just sit in front of the computer rather than find something else to do.  And that worries me.

Because of the Internet, though, I think I read more than I did before.  I’m probably reading fewer books, but I’m reading more articles from a wider variety of sources than I did before.  I used to work my way through the Chronicle, and over the years, have subscribed to a few mainstream news magazines, but I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper, mostly because I found most of it didn’t interest me.  Now, I read the Inquirer, the New York Times, and many others, as articles of interest find their way to me through various means.  I listen to podcasts from NPR, the Economist, and other sources while I work out, expanding what I listen to.  I watch much less tv, focusing on what I want to watch, sometimes downloading those things from the Internet.  That seems to me a good thing.

In the end, I think the show raised some really interesting points.  And I’ve been thinking about those points for a while.  Are we too disconnected from each other despite our constant connection?  Are we losing interest in a variety of things because we would prefer to be online?  Or can we create connection and create new interests through online worlds?  How much time online is too much time?  Does it depend on what you’re doing?  I honestly don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  I’m grateful for the Internet.  I can honestly say it has mostly changed my life in positive ways.  But I can also say that it has made me feel less than positive, about what I’m doing online, about the time I spend there, or because of interactions I’ve had there.  Maybe, it’s just like real life, which isn’t always positive either.

The Internet and the Brain

Partial map of the Internet based on the Janua...Image via Wikipedia

This week, an article in the Daily Mail featured Lady Susan Greenfield telling us that the Internet is not good for us. Good grief. Ars Technica, among others, point out that neither the article nor Greenfield point to any real research supporting her claims. If the Internet is making us stupid, then who are these people who recognize a lack of data to support claims?

There has been some research on this topic, which has been inconclusive. The concern is that kids/teenagers who are online or in front of screens too much and not interacting with people face-to-face might be losing valuable social skills. They might, for example, be losing the ability to read facial expressions and body language, both of which help people to communicate effectively. Fair enough. But that’s not the Internet’s fault. That’s a result of the kid not being encouraged to balance their screen time with other activities. I’m loath to completely blame parents here, but obviously, that’s one place to look. On the other hand, the research shows that older people can benefit from being online by creating new neural pathways, thus learning new things.

The Daily Mail article and Greenfield never actually say that the Internet is bad, but that it can change or may change the way we think. I’ve seen so many articles about various technologies that always assume change is bad. Change is neutral. It’s what we do with it that’s good or bad.

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Online vs. "real" life

I’ve been thinking about this in a number of contexts over the last week. As I’ve moved away from an institutional job, my online life increasingly *is* my life. I work with people all over the country and meet with them via skype, in second life, or just back and forth via a Google doc. The people I interact with online are mostly people I’ve met in real life at conferences or other events. They are people I turn to for ideas, advice, and support. In my physical space, I haven’t yet found the rich support network I have online. I do have friends and former colleagues that I meet up with periodically (some of whom are also part of my online network), but it’s harder to find these people; there are fewer opportunities to “meet” in physical space. I’m working on finding and/or creating these opportunities, but it’s a slow process.

The reality and to some extent, the physicality, of online life hit home for us this week. Geeky Boy suspected that one of his online friends, someone he’d been gaming with for over 4 years, was about to commit suicide. He reported this to Mr. Geeky, who began trying to track down the kid. All we had to go on was a name and a state. Ideally, he might have contacted the parents, but he couldn’t, so he ended up calling the police. Meanwhile, GB was texting his friend and getting no response, which naturally had him worried. The police took the whole thing seriously and did indeed track down GB’s friend, almost simultaneously with the friend finally contacting GB. We’re glad that GB didn’t brush off the incident as some random kid he knew online and took the situation as seriously as he would for a friend he knew in person. The whole situation is an indication, perhaps, that many kids will form lasting and real friendships online. I have hope that the building of these relationships will make the online world more hospitable as people eliminate the distinction between relationships that are “real” and those that are online.

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.

Google is not about privacy–and that may be okay

There’s a post this morning about how some people are complaining that Google Reader’s new feature where your shared items are shared with your contacts violates their privacy. Robert Scoble says that Google needs more granular privacy controls a la Facebook. I vote with his first response, that people need clarification on what public means.

I’ve written about this before, from the standpoint of being aware that future employers are increasingly eyeing a future employee’s online presence. Increasingly, I think, if you’re using social software, nothing is private. Search, even, is not private. Sure, there are ways to change settings so that your searches aren’t cached, your blogs aren’t pinging services, etc., but most people don’t change the defaults, so they’re just out there. And that’s okay. People just need to understand up front what it means to have so much of their online activity shared. And maybe being more open–online or elsewhere–is a good thing. Maybe it makes us more accountable for our actions. Sure, there are still some parts of our lives and our thoughts that are private, but mostly those parts aren’t being put online and if they are, I’d argue that either a) someone doesn’t understand how public the online space is; or b) they want people to know about those parts. Healthy skepticism is good, but paranoia leads us down a bad path.

Free the Internet

I’m in the airport, waiting for a flight to Denver. By the time you read this, of course, I’ll be in Denver. Because I can’t access the Internet in the air and I have to pay an outrageous amount for it in the airport. I used Google Gears to download my feeds, which is mostly useful since most of my feeds are full feeds. But if I want to hop on for 15 minutes to download some things to read on my 4-hour flight, I can’t. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could pay by the minute or something? The pricing structures for most airports/hotels/etc. are daily rates, usually around 10 bucks for 24 hours. I’m usually in an airport for less than an hour so it doesn’t make sense to pay for a full day. And it’s much more efficient to download some items to read offline than to read everything online. We used to do that in the days of dialup, but now not so much. Wireless and broadband are ubiquitous and mostly inexpensive (as a subscriber) so we just stay online all the time. But there are still these situations where momentary access would be useful. And honestly, in some cases, it might save money, energy and time.

Oh, I know I could have one of those wireless cards offered by the telecoms, but they’re pretty pricey too. Most don’t have a “pay-as-you-go” feature and require you to sign up for a plan at around $30/month. Considering I’m not in this situation that often, it doesn’t make sense to pay for something I’d use 2-3 times a year. Most of these products are geared toward the frequent traveler or business person not the casual user. It’s a shame. They’re missing out on a few bucks from me and I’m looking around at several hundred people who would probably have chipped in a buck or two to do a quick email check or check the weather at their destination. If you want to go in on a business plan with me, call. No email, of course cause I’m off the grid.

The Internet is a beautiful place

So many people, Andrew Keen, the mainstream media, etc., want to focus on the idea that the Internet is a scary place. Well, the Internet’s no scarier than the “real world.”

Today, I read at least two posts from two bloggers who regularly make me remember how wonderful the Internet can be. I feel lucky to know people like them. Their commenters, too, show how much compassion there really is in the world.

Of course, these two are just two examples of the kind of thing I run into every day out there in the “scary” Internet.