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Mitigating the Internet's Negative Consequences

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For the last 11 years Marje Monroe and Doug Fodeman have worked to educate schools, parents and students about the issues that affect children in an online world. Their Web site, ChildrenOnline.org, offers practical articles, resources, research, and a monthly newsletter on the topic. Recently, the team, which has a long background in education, self-published Safe Practices for Life Online, intended to show middle and high school students what scams target them and how to use the Internet more safely. A teacher's edition of the book will be available through the International Society for Technology in Education in November. In August, they'll self-publish a third guide, intended to help parents set appropriate limits around technology use and talk to their teens about how to protect their privacy online.

THE Journal: What was the inspiration for writing this book for schools?

Marje Monroe: It was really trying to provide concrete curriculum for schools to use in helping to educate our students around important topics online: privacy, social skills, all sorts of difficult issues. But I think a lot of schools should have this just as they have drug education, alcohol education, sex education. This should be part of that.

Doug Fodeman: We're surprised by the number of issues that people aren't speaking to or addressing or even raising about kids around Internet problems. A simple problem: We routinely see how kids are avoiding the face to face risks of difficult conversations that we all grow up learning how to muddle through and have by simply turning to texting or IMing or sending e-mail. A classic example. We've had 16- to 17-year-old kids [say], "I'd rather break up with my boyfriend or girlfriend by IMing or texting than doing it in person, because it's easier."

We feel sad that increasingly kids are looking to anonymity of computer to avoid those conversations. What's it say about the skills they're missing as they grow through adolescence in young adulthood?

Monroe: As an educational community we haven't really delved into idea of what's happening to these kids socially and emotionally as they're maturing and they're developing empathy and communication skills. That's what the focus of our work is on.

Fodeman: There's lots of great curriculum out there. We've found a lot of things missing in all this curriculum. We've spoken to private schools, parochial schools, public schools, church groups, and synagogues; we've worked with parents and teachers and kids; and everyone is clamoring for resources. We finally said, "We can't find them. We need to create them."

THE Journal: What are some of the things you're seeing happening in middle schools and high schools?

Monroe: One of the things that people are talking about is bullying, meanness, scapegoating, shunning. The playground bully, we like to say, has moved online. In texting, a whole lot of group meanness. Five kids will be texting another kid. One kid alone doesn't know there are five kids texting. Kids are also using texting for their social engagements. Kids are dating through texting. They're having pretty intimate conversations through texting or Iming.... What's that mean for this relationship that they've developed through texting?

Fodeman: Kids can not see the consequences of their actions. They don't know the value of their information or the value of the privacy of information.... The kids who post things in their "private" social networks have this incredible illusion that it's truly private. When Marje and I speak at schools, we'll show them 12 different ways that it isn't private. We know that there are lifelong consequences--being rejected from a college because of what they found in a kid's social network, being arrested, being fired from a summer camp. The kids don't get it.

THE Journal: How do the kids respond to you when you go in and make these presentations?

Monroe: Kids are amazingly perceptive. When they sit down and think about it and are honest and don't have parents or homeroom teacher with them, they do reflect that, "We do do that. But what's it matter?" Then when they sit back and we show them, they'll actually look at it. We've had some high school kids ask us, "Why should we even be on Facebook?" And we say, "Exactly. Good question. Why do you need to be on Facebook?"

So I think in some ways people would be really surprised at kids' ability to see through it. On the other hand, what's frightening is that they still go off and do it because that's what everyone else does, and they're dying for acceptance. They need to feel wanted and accepted and loved. And that's what they think they get online.

Fodeman: Keep in mind, when we're speaking with younger students, they eat this up. They love it. We do not stand in front of kids and wag our fingers and say, β€œDon't do this, don't do that.” We're happy to talk to parents, and tell them, β€œ[The kids] shouldn't have social networking until 16. They shouldn't have e-mail until 6th grade, and here's why." If we were to start a conversation with any of the kids 6th grade and above with that approach, they would immediately tune us out.

What we will do is stand in front of kids, we know this is what you're doing. We hear this from kids all over. We thought you'd be aware of some of the issues that are facing other kids elsewhere and especially some of the scams that are targeting you....

Monroe: I think also what happens, when we talk, the anger that the kids would have at schools or parents when they try to put boundaries on what they do online, when they actually see the fine print on Facebook or YouTube, that actually says, "We own your material." It says, "Anything you put on our Web site can be used, transferred, archived, copied at any time." The kids are shocked. I think there's a sense of betrayal. They really think Facebook and MySpace were created with their interest in mind. It's just not true.

THE Journal: What are some of the scams targeting kids?

Fodeman: There are some "legitimate" marketing practices that are a notch away from scams. An example is what happened last fall when Facebook launched a new marketing initiative in which all users were automatically subscribed to a service so that when they bought from a certain group of online companies like Amazon, the service would send data back to Facebook. They'd compare data, and they'd say, "Hey, we have this user too." So you send the information about what they bought, and that information was posted across the entire network of friends, without their consent.

If I went out and bought pink underwear, I'd go back to my Facebook page and find that all my friends already knew it because it was posted on their pages. There was a huge uproar. A few weeks later, Facebook had to retract that. They made it so that you're automatically opted out and you have to opt in in order to allow that to happen. However, what Facebook didn't tell people is that Amazon and all these other vendors still trade information with Facebook. So suddenly, I go back to my Web page, and I might see ads for orange underwear or green underwear.

Facebook and MySpace give access to their private pages to vendors. I might pay $100,000 to gain access to information about what this group of users is doing between the ages of 17 to 18 in Texas or in California. That information is used to manipulate my purchasing decisions. [The kids] flip out when they hear things like that.

Monroe: What are the direct scams that are hitting kids? There's a lot of them. For example, Web sites that are created that compete with iTunes and say, "We will sell you an album for $5.99 or $3.99 rather than $9.99." Kids jump at that and ask their parents for a credit card, and it's actually a scam.

Fodeman: The credit card charges $300 and they get no download at all. That one has been going on for while.

There's a company out of Hong Kong called stalkertrack. They claim to provide an add-on to a Facebook account, so you can get daily report to see who's visiting your pages, what they're clicking on, how much time they spend. It's kind of an interesting drug for kids. I can track what people are doing on my personal pages. It works. However, what they don't know is that when you say, "Yes, install this add-in to my account," they've just given away keys to their account and allowed these people to log in as them and push products on their friends as if it was that kid. They totally misrepresent the kids. I may get a message from another person in the network who says, "Hey, I visited this cool Web site and bought this product and I think it's awesome," but it's actually this marketer in Hong Kong.

One of the biggest scams that I think is brilliant is the scam that has especially been hitting Facebook heavily in the last year specifically to target teens to get to their parent's bank accounts. Here's how it works. These scammers have realized that a small percent of parents use their children's names or birth dates as passwords into their banking and credit card accounts. So they'll trick their way into a network.

Let's suppose the three of us are on a common network where we can look at each other's information. I make a poor decision and I allow in some jerk to our network. He can use one of a dozen different programs, like foxadder, and he can in seconds suck out all the personal information in all our accounts, and then he can go through that personal information targeting the login screens of various banks or credit cards, using information he's gathered. Believe it or not, in a small percent of bank accounts in these instances, they get in....

THE Journal: What role should schools play in educating students about the dangers of unprotected surfing?

Monroe: I feel strongly that schools need to have a strong role educating kids and parents. In fact, I think parents rely on schools. I think there's some frustration at schools: How come we're doing all the parenting? On the other hand, parents are very, very insecure and unsure about technology. Anything that schools can do to be very clear and say, "Parents are going to make their own choices, but we recommend no e-mail until 6th grade. Parents can make their own choices, but we recommend anyone in high school is not on Facebook or MySpace. And we'll make sure those sites are blocked from our schools."

THE Journal: Are you suggesting a class comparable to driver's education?

Fodeman: Schools can do any form of this--from a day long Internet safety course to a year-long class. Today, our kids live their lives in the digital world. That's only going to increase, not decrease in the years to come. It's a part of our reality. So, yes, I believe that schools today, just like they've incorporated issues around bullying in personal growth and development courses, some are doing sex education, they're doing--even things like college counseling. I think it's paramount that schools take under their mantle to teach our kids about being digital citizens and what that means, how to be responsible, how to live their lives in a digital world....

THE Journal: At what age does this education need to start happening?

Monroe: We don't speak to kids younger than the 4th grade. Before that age they don't need to be online. And while their older brothers and sisters are, those are family issues. At schools, we begin talking to kids as young as 4th grade all the way until senior year, 12th grade. We really developmentally tailor them. At 4th grade, we're having conversions. What do you guys do online? What games do you play? Kids generate their conversations. We find 4th and 5th graders are far more savvy about privacy and taking care of themselves.

Fodeman: There are things that even at 4th and 5th grade they truly get. For instance, we often ask a question: Is it easier to hurt somebody's feelings online or in person? Most of the kids get the idea that online it's very easy to hurt their feelings because you can't see their face, you don't see their body language, you don't hear the tone or inflection of voice. You don't get so much more information with it. They get that. They're actually very perceptive. We have some great discussions with them. Also, they're very willing to talk about things openly.

THE Journal: Do you see a need for a new role within schools or districts to address these kinds of issues?

Fodeman: Eleven years ago, when I became director of technology, I had parents with issues about kids on IM. I didn't even have the vocabulary to speak to it let alone understand what was developmentally appropriate. I had heard from a colleague that Marje as a guidance counselor was doing research in this area. I invited her to my school to speak on these issues. We found that there were some questions that were of a technical nature that she couldn't address that I could. So she invited me out to her school, and we spoke to parents at her school. Someone had a child at another school and asked, "Well, will you come to my school?" We believe that schools can best deal with these issues and address these issues and educate the community if there's collaboration between the technology staff and the guidance staff.

THE Journal: Is it important for schools to implement filters or other mechanisms to limit the exposure that kids get?

Monroe: We do. Although a lot of schools have their own opinions. I worked at Buckingham Browne and Nichols in Cambridge. What I loved about that school was that it was a free-thinking school. They'd never want to put structures in place. They felt like their job was to help kids understand why the structures are there, so they could make their own decisions. There are a lot of schools built on that model.

[On the other hand], a director technology at a boarding school was so frustrated and came to Doug and me and said, "We have boys downloading porn at three in the morning, and it's crashing the servers. We're telling them not to." It's like telling them not to hide porn magazines in their bedrooms. You can tell them not to, but of course they're going to. If you ... want them to stop, you have to block it. You have to take the porn magazines out of their bedrooms. It's not fair to kids to expect them to make those sorts of choices.

THE Journal: Do you like to see schools to bring in parents for education too?

Monroe: In our meetings with schools, we usually spend our time meeting with parents in the morning or evening and meeting with kids during the day, meeting with parents sometimes at lunch, and meeting with administrators and the entire faculty in the afternoon. We feel strongly that parents need to know. We also send out surveys and collect data from the kids, that let us know what they're doing online. And we present those to the parents and talk about, "Here's nationally what we're seeing. It looks like you guys are high in having unlimited access in bedrooms. Your kids could be lying, but here's what they're saying." And parents just clamor for that.

THE Journal: Can you cite any schools that have some really great approaches or tools for educating students?

Fodeman: There are some schools where we're there one day a year. Outside that one day, there's not a whole of conversation unless there's a major issue. Just like any life skills, like math or grammar, you have to circle back and touch on the various skill sets and build on them throughout the year. An English teacher may give an essay on life in the digital world or bullying or how do you communicate online--is it different from communicating in person?

Monroe: Some schools that we've spoken at have had us back for three or four times. We were there every year. I think we really sparked a change in their school. I think schools want to do this, but the problem it may be a lot cheaper to bring us in for a day a year, than it is to hire a teacher and create a program around this. That's the challenge of schools today. Money's tight, the economy's struggling. There's AP curriculum. And it's difficult to schedule in more stuff. The argument is: Our kids are stressed enough. We can't schedule anymore in their day. It's a lot for schools to handle.

THE Journal: Are you seeing actual change in behavior when you go back year after year?

Fodeman: We'll often get e-mail from parents or administrators of schools. The parents want to thank us: "My kid came home and told me about making good passwords and told me about some of the scams they've learned about. We started a whole conversation we haven't had before."

When we speak with parents, what we highlight is that you can have the best filtering software in the world, or set the best structure and tone for telling your kids what's acceptable and what's not. But the bottom line is nothing takes the place of constant conversations around values, about how parents want to raise their children and the things they think are important, and put those conversations in the context of a digital world. Because kids disconnect. They lose sight of what they're doing, and that has real consequences for the person on the other end.

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About the author: Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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