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Social Networking: A New Tech Tool and a New Security Concern for Teens and Schools [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Joanne Barrett - Posted May 1, 2006
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What has been the hottest tech issue in your school this year? As a middle school computer teacher at an independent school for girls in a metropolitan area, I feel pretty confident guessing that it is student usage of social networking sites. Social networking has become a huge issue for the parents of our students. Justified or not, their reactions are a direct response to what they are seeing and hearing about social networking sites through the media. Print and television coverage has put social networking on everyone's radar screen. Is the attention just hype, or is it justified? Clearly, social networking presents challenges for us in schools that we have not seen with any of the previous waves of technology.

Technology and student safety are not new issues. Chat rooms and predators were a huge fear among parents when we put laptops into their children's hands 7 years ago. The benefits outweighed the fears, so we forged on and embraced our laptop program. Fortunately, educators have long held the belief that technology is here to stay and that educating our teens to the wise use of technology makes the most sense. The successful adults of the future will be those who know how to incorporate the use of technology into all facets of their lives. The valuable resources that we now find available to us have come with a different price tag. While we have gained the ability to have instant information at our fingertips, we still need to educate students on how to use these tools wisely.

What Is Social Networking?

There has been informal social networking on the Web since its inception, but sites dedicated to social networking have been expanding rapidly since 2003. Today, these sites gather data about the members and then store the information as a user profile. The data, or profiles, can then be shared among the members of the site. Membership in these sites can be free, or the sites can be profit-based. At many of the sites, a user can gain membership by the simple act of setting up an account. Just like clubs in our traditional society, some are open to all and others are accessed by invitation only. Most of the social networking sites can be divided into some basic categories, including business, common interest, and dating. Increasingly, it is the common-interest sites that have captured the attention of our teens and preteens.

One of the first sites to get noticed by the online community was Friendster, which opened to the public in March 2003. What was most notable to the industry about Friendster was its unprecedented access to the coveted 25- to 35-year-old demographic. Wanting access to marketing dollars targeting this important group, a number of big Web players started up social networking sites. Many grew initially, but it is not clear whether these sites will be around for the long haul. While Friendster enjoyed an initial membership explosion, many of the users from the initial demographic seemed to get bored with the technology and moved on to other things.

The Teen Demographic

The teen demographic, however, did not enter and get bored. Quite the contrary, kids are discovering these places to be a natural extension to the time and ways that they are already spending online. Social networking sites provide one more venue for them to explore and spend social time.

With the arrival of MySpace, a site initially created to provide the musically inclined with a place to showcase their music, there is now a player that has weathered the initial boom and stayed popular. By the end of 2005, MySpace reportedly had 32 million users. While MySpace was intended to be a site for older teens and adults (it does not allow the creation of accounts for anyone under the age of 15), it has proven popular with young teens. So kids 14 or younger have to lie to create accounts. In their favor, if MySpace staffers get information that a user account belongs to a younger child, they will delete the account.

Not surprisingly, this hasn't deterred many kids from joining. As an educator, I also feel partly to blame. I recall teaching students to set up free Internet-based e-mail accounts, putting "made-up" adult ages into the user profiles so they couldn't be identified by would-be predators as children. While I no longer teach creating these accounts since our students have their own school-based accounts, I can't help but worry that in some ways we have encouraged them to disguise their ages online and, hence, made it easier for them to lie while online.

The social networking sites that now seem to be more successful (in terms of large memberships) are those that have been created around a central theme and that maintain some sort of voyeuristic appeal. One thing is clear: Young students are finding social networking sites, and, as a demographic, they also have a lot of time—and a desire—to experiment.

Facebook Makes Its Entrance to the High School Scene

The first time I heard of Facebook was in a Washington Post article in September 2005. The article talked about how students at George Washington University were changing their social habits, spending large amounts of time surfing the site. (One news report recently declared that "facebooking" is a new verb among teens.) As did Napster, Facebook arrived first on the college scene and eventually migrated down to our K-12 world.

On its Web site, Facebook claims it is "an online directory that connects people through social networks at schools." Also like Napster, Facebook was the brainchild of a college student, in this case, Mark Zuckerberg of Harvard. This past fall, Facebook made itself available to high-school users. The buzz among high-school students in our area has been overwhelming.

Facebook caught on fast with our students for several reasons. First, our student body is highly competitive and achievement-oriented. Students you would never have expected to "waste time" creating profiles and putting themselves online quickly began creating pages. But it's not so surprising when you consider that the concept originated at Harvard—good enough for Harvard, good for our students, too.

Another aspect of Facebook that quickly drew our kids in was the perception that Facebook was a completely safe place to be online. Unlike many other resources, this Web site required a school-based e-mail account to create a profile. If they had to use a school e-mail address, they reasoned, it would only be accessible to those they deemed "friends" and authorized access to their pages. What they didn't anticipate was that friends of the friends would also have access. Soon, their private information was becoming very public.

Teens are also very explicit in the content they are posting on Facebook. It is not unusual for a girl to post a suggestive picture and solicit comments from her friends. When some of our students initially joined, a few provided false pictures of themselves. As at MySpace, we soon had 14-year olds and younger students creating pages on a site that was intended to be a resource for high schoolers.

A third aspect of Facebook, and of most social networking sites, is the ability for members to join groups, or, in the case of Facebook, to set up clubs, often around special interests. The clubs were intended as a way for users to exhibit their personalities. Despite the good intentions behind this feature, it has backfired and mushroomed into a source of cyber bullying and harassment. Unfortunately, clubs have been created for the sole purpose of being hurtful and abusive to others. It is ironic that what was developed as a tool for students to connect, share ideas, and be good "netizens" has evolved into a place that can be so powerfully negative and hurtful.

How Social Networking Is Different

Social networking sites are having a huge impact on schools because of the ways in which some of our students have been using them.

The first concern for educators about these sites is safety. Posting information on these sites for the world to see means making it available to predators. Last fall as I was reading about the networking sites, I was also aware of the disappearance and subsequent murder of a local Virginia student. I learned several weeks later that the student, Taylor Behl, had kept a blog on MySpace.

Her last journal entries were still available and accessible at the time of this writing. While MySpace cannot be blamed for the murder of this young woman, it gives one pause to think that her thoughts and feelings were recorded for the whole world, including her future killer, to see on MySpace.

While we have been teaching students for years to keep their private information private, students don't seem to recognize these Web sites as public places. They don't think about the fact that posting a blog or a user profile on these sites is a form of posting information about themselves in a public place. We must redouble our efforts to make students understand this.

Another concern is online harassment. This is defined by the Crimes Against Children Research Center as "threats or other offensive behavior sent online or posted online about the youth for others to see." Today, teens are using blogs and profiles to express themselves and as an outlet for self-discovery. While many use these outlets in constructive ways, there are some that do not. Incidences and reports of cyber bullying are on the rise. The ability to use these resources for bullying has intensified. You do not have to spend much time on some of these sites to find examples of such harassment and bullying.

Raising Awareness

There have now been expulsions and penalties associated with materials that underage students have posted on their pages. Colleges have cracked down and used pictures and text as evidence. One thing that teens don't understand is that posting something for the world to see on the Web can impact not only today but tomorrow and for years to come. Future employers will use these sites to find information during recruitment. Digital footprints exist and are real, and we must ensure that students understand that point.

In a more recent Washington Post article, the authors talk about Facebook's claim that "Use of Facebook is easier for schools to regulate because it requires users to sign in using a school-issued e-mail address." This is far from the truth. While it is true that users need a school e-mail address for access, there is no regulation that a school can perform. When schools are unhappy about postings made by students, the only real recourse at this time is to block access to the site from the school. Requests can be made to the sites to remove materials, but many postings are so craftily created that it is often not clear that they are abusive.

Ultimately, Regrettably, Removing Access

In an attempt to combat the problem, we as a school reminded students of their responsibilities, pointing to our acceptable use policies that prohibit the posting of their school e-mail addresses. But, ultimately, we have had to remove access to social networking sites from our school servers.

This is a huge policy shift. Prior to the existence of social networking sites, as an educational institution we believed that education into wise usage was far better than blocking sites from our servers. Now, we are using those blockers, and social sites are not available from our school.

This has solved some of the problem for the institution, but our students can still gain access from home or a local Wi-Fi spot. How do you educate when you have removed access at school? Are we creating a new type of teen prohibition that will make them want access even more? Education into the use of these resources will be one of our biggest challenges for some time to come.

Joanne Barrett is middle school computer coordinator for Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Md. Contact her at her school address: 9101 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814.

Sources and Resources

Bahrampout, Tara and Lori Aratani. "Teens' Bold Blogs Alarm Area Schools; Uninhibited Online Remarks Full of Risks, Officials Warn." The Washington Post. Jan. 17, 2006 [].

Current Magazine. "Exclusive Interview With Mark Zuckerberg. The Face Behind" Nov. 30, 2004 [].

Finkelhor, David, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Janis Wolak. "Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth." National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2000 [].

Rivlin, Gary. "Friendster, Love and Money." The New York Times. Jan. 24, 2005 [].

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