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Parenting in the Internet Age

Experts on youth and new media explain what parents need to understand about the Internet, and what they need to teach their children.

Candace Kelsey
Author, Generation MySpace

photo of kelsey

One of the main reasons I decided to really devote myself to researching this topic [was] parents knew nothing. They didn't even know what MySpace was, let alone understanding the allure that their kids find in it, or how much time their kids are spending on it. Many of my students are not just on MySpace at 8:00 at night. For many of them it's 4:00 in the morning, 3:00 in the morning, for hours on end. And parents, in my experience, have had no knowledge of this whatsoever. ...

For a parent to be an effective parent to an adolescent, they need to know what is really happening in their child's life. What's the social landscape? And for parents to be completely unaware of something that's as dominant as MySpace in a teenager's life, that's just a recipe for disaster. ...

Many parents believe that their child is not involved in MySpace, and for some that's true; I interviewed several students who had no interest in MySpace and weren't on there. However, what parents need to understand is that MySpace is now such a part of the social landscape that even if your child does not use it, their social world is still revolving around that, and it's still a part of everything that occurs for them. ...

I've seen parents who feel that that's private and ... that their child has a right to that privacy, which I honor in some way because I do believe adolescents do need some privacy in order to become who they need to become. But of course it opens the doors for some dangerous problems. ...

I have to say that in most of the cases where communities or parents have said, "No MySpace, turn it off," that it's really a false sense of security. Most kids are getting back on it. It's very difficult to cut a kid off from the mainstay of their social life, and to think of online social networks as something that can be extracted from a teenager's life is really ... ignorant. It's part of teen culture. My argument is not that everyone's doing it so it's okay, but it's occurring, it's there, it's real, it's not going away. It's a very strong part of your child's coming-of-age experience. So parents need to know about it and understand it so that they can be there to guide their children through it. ...

I think to raise a child in the 21st century without the skills of how to walk through an online social networking site is irresponsible for a parent. But that doesn't mean that at age 13 your child should be on there, no holds barred, completely unregulated. My argument is that around the age of 16, I think teens are ready to be on there, with limited amounts of time, with a lot of guidance from their parents, and a lot of guidance that started maybe four years prior to that.

But the point here is not cutting kids off from something; it's teaching them how to use it responsibly and safely and how to express themselves appropriately.

Anne Collier
Co-director, ConnectSafely.org

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I think we all need to be thinking more about ethics, about citizenship, and in fact the term "online safety" is probably becoming obsolete or should be. It really should be about online citizenship. Some teachers, tech educators are calling for reintroducing ethics at the grade-school level in tech education. Not just because of copyright theft or cut-and-paste plagiarism, but also because of cyberbullying and the self-protective aspect of ethics that really has come into play on the social web. ...

One of the things that I try to tell parents every chance I get is that fear is bad. Fear is actually increasing risk, because when we're afraid, we shut down communications with our kids. When we start banning things and overreacting, they want to get as far away from us as they possibly can.

And so what do they do online? They go into stealth mode. And there are so many devices they can use to connect, there are so many hot spots and friend's houses and libraries and cafes and school and all these places where they can go online where we can't control them. If we really want to control every movement of their lives, they're at greater risk, actually, if we shut down communication.

So we really need to talk with our kids and tap their expertise and ask them what they're doing online, not rely on "To Catch A Predator" or what it says in the local paper. Because generally speaking, the people who are reporting those stories are adults, and so they're digital tourists. And what concerns me is that the tourists are dominating the public discussion, not the commuters. We need to get both in the discussion. We need the expertise of our teenagers.

Well, they so often know so much more that their parents. I had one teenager tell me that his father had this monitoring software, and he was able to tell when his father was monitoring him. ... I mean, does this monitoring software work?

... It depends on the kid. If the kid is very tech-literate, he'll figure out work-arounds. There are proxy servers, there are proxy services, there are ways for kids to get around monitoring, or they just go to a friend's house where rules are a little more lax. So I think "parental controls" is a bit of a misnomer. It's really hard to control what our kids are doing online.

It's really better to communicate with them and help them develop their own critical thinking, the filter between their ears, because what we can do with technology is very limited. There is no technology that can really help us parent, and there is no law that is really going to help us protect our kids. Our kids have to protect themselves first and foremost, and we can help them. We can really be their best backup, but they're the ones who are protecting themselves.

Parry Aftab
Executive Director, WiredSafety.org

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We need to teach our kids to exist in the world. We teach them to be kind to other people: [saying] please, thank you, opening doors, giving up their seat for somebody who is older. We need to teach them good cybercitizenship. We need to teach them etiquette, good manners online: You don't type in all capital letters; you're responsive; you check and make sure the person you're sending the text message is really the person you wanted to send it to, instead of mistyping it and have something end up in the wrong hands.

We teach them to use emoticons: little smilies or something else to let people know they're kidding, because no one can see your expression online. ... We need to teach them how to use the technology responsibly, and if we can do that, I can keep the kids safe. ...

I have something called the three Cs: content, contact and cost. Look at every piece of technology that you've got in the house that your kids can play with. Can they contact somebody else with it and communicate with them? Can they see content: porn, violence, any kind of information that they can share back and forth? And will it cost you money: downloading videos, pirating songs, technology viruses that are going to blow up your computer? ...

Parents know that if a stranger calls their house on the phone your kid shouldn't talk to them on the phone for two hours. Apply common sense and make it cybersense. Things we already know -- don't talk to strangers; don't tell secrets to strangers; don't take candy from strangers -- ... all of these things apply exactly online. If I can get parents to step back and stop being afraid of the technology they can keep the kids safe. They don't need a class on this stuff. They just need to stop panicking, talk to their kids, and be in charge.

The technology is one thing, but parents are afraid of their teenagers, too.

You know, I'll take the blame for this. I was born and raised in the '60s. We fought establishments, and every generation after that wanted to be their kids' friends, and they're afraid of putting their foot down because their kids won't love them. And instead, now we have huge issues with kids doing drugs and out of control and dropping out of college and not getting into college and all these kind of things are going on, because there's no structure.

And when I talk to kids, it's amazing how many kids want structure. They want somebody to be in charge; they don't want to be out there on their own. It's a scary world, online or off. So they may protest this, but they really want parents to be parents. They've got best friends already. ...

If parents are willing to step to the plate and take a risk, their kids will welcome it. The kids will be safe, and they'll grow into better people. It's our job as parents to be a parent, not to be the kid's best friend. And the buck stops here, because if we don't do it, don't expect the school to. It's up to you to raise your kids. It's not up to MySpace to raise your kids; it's not up to Facebook to raise your kids; it's not up to me to raise your kids. It's important the parents step in.

C.J. Pascoe, Ph.D.
Digital Youth Research project, University of California, Berkeley

The Internet affords an independence to teenagers that I don't think we've seen since the invention of the car. We saw the creation of teenage culture start in the early 1900s, and it coincided with the widespread use and adoption of cars, because for the first time, teens were really able to escape the purview of their parents and the home and go off with one another in these really independent ways.

And the Internet's allowed them to do the same thing. They're able to have a private space, even while they're still at home; they're able to communicate with their friends and have an entire social life outside of the purview of their parents without actually having to leave the house.

And social networking sites in particular, I think, have taken off because teen culture is a social culture. That's what being an adolescent at this time in history in the United States is; it's being social. We don't expect them necessarily to have career plans, we expect them to go to school and to create their friendship networks. That's what they're doing as teenagers ...

[In the 1950s, the psychologist] Erik Erikson called adolescence a time of "identity consolidation," and so what teens are doing is going around and trying on these different identities. ... So in a way the social networking sites are this digital representation of what we think of as adolescence. ...

I want to talk a little bit about the media perception of this phenomenon: What are they getting right, and what are they getting wrong?

I think the media is a little paranoid, ... and I think what has happened since the 1980s is we've become very paranoid about our children -- the 1980s' kidnapping cases and the abuse scandals. We've become very, very frightened that something will happen to our most precious resources, which are our children, and the new media and the Internet, along with these fears around our children, ... have really coincided to result in a little bit of hysteria around children's activities online and children's vulnerabilities online. And I think the media picks up on that.

I found in my interviews with teens that they're a lot more savvy than we think they are. For instance, most of the teens I've talked to who have migrated to Facebook ... do so out of concerns about privacy, because they can really limit who sees their site, and they can actually give different groups different levels of access to their site. ...

I think we do need to teach our children digital literacy. They need to know how to keep themselves safe online, they need to think about the information that they're putting out there, and they need to be able to have discussions with their parents about it. The most well-rounded teens I've talked to have said, "Oh yeah, my parents have seen my MySpace site, and they're fine. They don't check it or anything, but I've showed it to them." ... They have the privacy to put what they want to put on their site, but they're okay enough with what they're putting on the site for the parents to look at it. And I think that their parents do need to be involved in that sense.

What I think is unhealthy is when parents respond to these media stories by saying, "You can't go on MySpace; MySpace is just dangerous." And I have had that happen as well, and the kids just go [to] their friend's houses and set up MySpaces. It doesn't stop them; it just shuts down communication and shuts down any chance the kid has of talking to his or her parents about what they're doing and strategies for being safe.

Danah Boyd
Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

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All of this comes down to control: What young people want is control over their spaces, control over their lives, control over the sense of what their lives look like, what's happening. ... That's what growing up is about: It's about trying to gain control of your life while they're fighting with their parents for control. ...

And so the battle over control just gets nastier and nastier, and it's getting more problematic because adults don't understand the spaces these kids are trying to control. It was really easy for my mother growing up being like, "When I was your age blah blah, blah." Like, "I learned this lesson, you should too." And of course you roll your eyes and you're like, "Great, mom, thanks."

But any adult who says to a kid now, "When I was your age I knew how this worked," it's like, "No, you didn't; you have no idea." And so the lack of knowledge, the lack of an ability for a baseline communication and the expectation that adults know everything and that we'll teach the kids behavior -- it's a disconnect. It's not working. ...

One of the things I advise adults to do is, you need to learn from your kids. You need to ask them why they're doing this, why it's important, and you need to ask questions. You need to ask moral questions -- have you thought about this? What would happen if this? What about this situation? -- and go through these situations, ... giving examples, learning from your experience to help them, but not by force. Force is not working in this space at all. Telling them how they should behave just makes you look like an idiot. It has to be a collaborative process now.

David Finkelhor, Ph.D.
Director, Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire

photo of finkelhor, Ph.D.

I don't want to say to parents that if your kids seem to be generally responsible and healthy they're at no risk at all. Obviously they need to have basic information about how to stay safe online and accurate information about how kids get into trouble so that they don't inadvertently stumble on to that kind of stuff and get caught up in it. But I do think that parents who have a good relationship with their kids, who have open channels of communication, that they should feel confident that a lot of that basic, good parenting has immunized kids against a certain amount of this problem. ...

I think we've been spending too much of our time focusing the educational messages at parents. The kids who get involved in these criminal seductions are teenagers, some of them quite alienated from their families, many of them dealing with issues they can't share with their families. We have to be talking directly to teenagers.

Secondly, we have to talk honestly with teens about their motives and their activities. ... The primary messages now are, "Don't give out personal information, don't talk to strangers online, don't use Facebook or MySpace." This just flies in the face of youth culture, and so I don't think we're going to make many inroads with those kinds of messages.

And anyway, our research shows that giving out personal information and having social networking Web site [accounts] do not put kids at risk. ... It's really what they do when they get a solicitation or they have a contact with somebody who begins to propose some of these things. It's talking about sex online, or it's interacting indiscriminately, or it's having a very sexualized image of themselves. It's taking these kinds of risks that really make them vulnerable. ...

You have to talk with them about why having a relationship with a 32-year-old guy is a bad idea and could get them and the guy into a lot of trouble. You have to talk with them about the laws, about statutory sex offenses. We have to talk with them about what the problem is [about] posting or sending out sexualized pictures of themselves, how that can end up online forever and they can't control it, and how in fact those images are child pornography and illegal.

We have to talk to them about how important it is to report. Because if they know their friends or other people who are being solicited or contemplating such relationships, those kinds of things need to come to the police's attention and parental attention. And those are very different kinds of messages than what we've been currently doing in the area of Internet safety.

Rob and Debbie Hunter
Parents of Jessica Hunter, aka Autumn Edows

photo of the hunters

[Looking back, was it positive, Jessica's writing and posting pictures of herself online?]

Rob: Oh yeah. I think it saved her life, looking back. At the time, I wouldn't have ever said that. Looking back, based on where she is now and what has happened, it saved her life. ... And I just sort of came to that realization not that long ago. ... Other people say other things about the Internet, and they talk about the danger. From where I stand, I'm glad it's there, I really am, because she had nowhere to go, nowhere. She was cut off, and God only knows what would have happened if she had been a kid 20 years ago. Where would she have ended up? ...

Debbie: People are going to find what they're looking for. ... When I look at some of the kids that she went to school with before and everything -- we didn't have the problem with drugs, we didn't have the problem with alcohol. She never got in trouble with the law. Not that any of these kids did, but her head's on straight. And she may have dressed a little differently and she looked at things differently, but there's a good person inside. And she really was looking for a lot of things that influenced her art and her photography, and she wasn't looking to do anything bad. ...

[What is it that you think she found online?]

Debbie: I think she found a creative outlet, for one thing. Definitely a creative outlet.

Rob: She found another world ... that she could live in, that she could create, she could inhabit without having to worry about the day-to-day. I mean, I'm sure school wasn't fun, and she still had the same problems with the other kids in the town, what have you, or people that didn't see it her way. But when she was there, that was her world, and she was safe. And it was a good place; it was a reaffirming place. ...

That's how I look at it now, and I told her this recently. I said to her, "You know, it doesn't matter where you take this, this was a win-win for you. Even if this Web site and what you're doing in the name Autumn Edows and all that, it doesn't last, what you've learned you're going to take with you for the rest of your life." ...

Debbie: Yeah, and where does creativity come from? It comes from all around, and it comes from who you are and all the experiences that you've had and what you've seen and what you've done. And the Internet, in that respect, opens up a whole world that you can't get, especially for a child who doesn't have the mobility to travel to these places and see things. And creativity comes from pulling all this information together and then making it your own, and that's what she's done. She's found her voice.

Rob: Yeah, she found her voice. She created her own world, and that's pretty neat if you think about it, I mean for just a kid who got online and started and just taught herself. You find on the Internet what you want.

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posted january 22, 2008

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