Invisible friends

Yesterday afternoon, I dropped my son off at a total stranger’s house.  I don’t know too many parents who would do this, but I did it so that he could hang out in real life with a friend he has been Skyping and playing online games with for a couple of years.  I’ll admit to being apprehensive. What if they were scary people? What if something went wrong?  But when we walked in the door, his friend’s mom gave him a big hug, saying, “I feel like I already know you.”  They all couldn’t be nicer.  As I was leaving, the boys were headed out for an adventure.  Geeky Boy’s friend kept calling us while we were on the road, checking in with him about what he might like to do.  Geeky Boy was beyond excited. I don’t even know what they finally settled on. I could have stayed there myself, but I chose to have some time to myself, staying down the road at a hotel.

People are still squeamish about people on the Internet. I’m glad to see that not everyone is. Geeky Boy has always been careful online, but has made some real friends.  This is the first one he’s been able to meet.  I hope there are more.

Cleaning the digital cobwebs

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve gradually retreated from the kind of gung-ho online enthusiasm I had previously engaged in.  I still find much of value online, but I find myself either easily overwhelmed in spaces like Twitter or Facebook, and now, Quora, or not stimulated enough by blogs and other longer form digital media.  When I started considering a move to K-12, I expanded the number of K-12 oriented blogs and Twitter users I followed and I gradually reduced the number of Higher Ed media I follow.  I no longer read IHE or the Chronicle, and I’ve dropped many Higher Ed bloggers who write primarily about their lives as faculty and complain about various issues in Higher Ed.  I’m no longer interested (sorry folks).  There are a handful of people in that category that are interesting enough writers to keep me reading or write on a variety of different topics.

But there’s still some culling I need to do, and I’m going to look seriously at the Twitter and Facebook friends I have.  The benefit of Facebook, for me, is keeping up with far-flung high school, college, and graduate school friends, many of whose lives I’m interested in not just for personal reasons but for professional ones.  Amazingly, I have many friends involved in technology even when they started out as poets or history majors.  But I don’t need 350 people.  My feed gets clogged really quickly.

Twitter offers a lot of interesting ideas and links, but there, too, I have too many people I’m following.  Now that I know what I really benefit from the most, I can eliminate the people who post things of little value to me.  I do like to be diverse in the kinds of people I follow, but I don’t want to have to cull through tons of unimportant or uninteresting tweets to find the good stuff.

I think a lot of this, too, comes from having less time.  I have 15-20 minutes increments where I can pop in and check my reader or Twitter.  I’m always looking for things that I can use in my own teaching as well as things I can share with my teachers.  I can’t waste the limited time I have.

I’m also trying to streamline many of my online practices.  The reason I liked delicious so much was that I had an easy way, via my browser, to save a link and then I had an RSS feed going to a page I curate for my teachers and the links also went to Twitter.   Some of that was, of course, for self-promotional purposes, back when I was trying to be a consultant, but now it’s so I can provide information to my colleagues quickly and easily.  I looked around the other day for an alternative to delicious and frankly, there isn’t anything I want to use.  Delicious is clean and easy, so until I get the word that it’s going to go down completely, I’m sticking with it.

But other accounts, I’m getting rid of.  I used to join every new Web 2.0 site that came down the pike.  Now, I wait to see if it’s worth it. 

Clearly, I’m keeping the blog, even if I read fewer blogs than before.  Unlike Twitter and Facebook, which have become like giant parties where half the people are drunk and half the people are people I don’t know, the blog feels like a quiet dinner party I’m hosting at my house where friends I’ve invited are here and a few random folks drop by to say hello.  I need that intimate feel more than ever now.  So here I go, off to reduce my connections, maybe down to the Dunbar number.

Technology and Kids’ Friendships

Texting
Image by Adam UXB Smith via Flickr

The New York Times reports on the latest Pew findings about how much time kids spend texting each other.  A side note: why do they always put these articles in fashion? Seriously?  Why not technology?  It seems to me that putting in the tech section would accomplish two things.  One, it might get the tech audience to think about some of the implications of the gadgets and software they’re so interested in reading about.  And two, it might get some parents and teachers who are otherwise clueless about what’s out there to find out more about trends in technology.  Just a thought.

So anyway, the article begins with the usual scare mongering about how all this technology is changing the nature of friendships and for the worse.  I think it’s important to consider the downside to anything, but it’s also important to consider the upside, the possibility that a change might actually be a good thing.  Which, thankfully, the second half of the article does.  Parents say that they believe texting has brought their kids closer to their friends.  Some parents even suggested their shy and withdrawn kids sign up for Facebook.

One thing the article doesn’t mention is the possible connection between parents’ fears about child abduction, etc. and the use of technology.  What I mean by that is that we are less likely, have been less likely, to let our kids wander over to a friend’s house or to the park to meet up with friends.  So texting and Facebook and MySpace and online games are a substitute for those face-to-face interactions.  It’s possible that the turn to online interactions would have happened anyway, without the parenting changes, because of the novelty of those interactions.  But we should always consider that there are larger society shifts at play and that the introduction of technology might not be the only thing causing the shift.

Also, there’s barely a mention of balance.  One mother notices her son is becoming more withdrawn as he turns to the computer for most of his personal communication, and so she signs him up for some activities that are face-to-face.  And I think that’s key.  I’m less concerned about my kids hanging out online when they are also playing sports or participating in other face-to-face activities.  And I think that’s important.  In the summer, I limit the amount of time the kids spend online even more because they don’t have the natural interactions of school to turn to.  And the weather is nice enough that I can kick them outside for a few hours.  If we get a really nasty rainy day, I’ll extend time online as a treat, but even then, I also make them go read or play a board game.  It’s all about the variety of activities, and I’m always trying to encourage that variety.

Geeky Boy communicates with most of his friends (and his girlfriend–yikes!) through texting, Facebook, or Runescape.  But much of that communication is about arranging occasions to meet.  And he spends a fair amount of time actually talking on the phone as well.  The one thing I will say that’s disappointing about all this online communication is that I know less about his friends than my parents knew about mine.  My friends often had to talk to my mom or dad first before they’d hand over the phone to me and they’d come by the house or one parent or another would drive us all to the mall or the movies or the pool.  Now, they’re not allowed to be dropped off anywhere, mostly and no one has cars, so I’ve met very few of Geeky Boy’s friends.  Maybe that will change when they start to drive, or maybe it will all remain a mystery.

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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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