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October 1, 2004
This week's feature is the first of two parts on one US middle school's online social scene: how to help these 11-to-13-year-old Netizens keep it constructive.
Here's the complete lineup for this last week of September:
- The IM life of middle-schoolers, Part 1: The home front
- A mom writes: IM impersonations
- Web News Briefs: Congress is after pirates; For young critical thinkers; Beware IM virus; Non-stranger danger; Digital divide update; E-books for needy kids; RateMyTeachers.com; Legal movies; 4-H site by kids....
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The IM life of middle-schoolers, Part 1
"It's almost like, to our kids, IM is an alternate reality," a friend and parent said to me recently. I think he's right, but it seems that way to parents too.
...an alternate reality because kids behave differently when in instant-messaging mode. With fellow instant-messagers they're often more bold, freer to try different behaviors or personas than what they'd do or be in person. With people in the same room, sometimes it's as if we're not even there. When IMing, they're in another space.
This new online part of our children's social lives seems unfathomable to many of us. At least, that's what Amanda, a Net-literate school counselor (and trained social worker) in Salt Lake City, has found. "I was shocked by the shock of the parents. This kind of communication is so new to them that the boundaries are blurred.... They don't know when to put their foot down, so they don't." Last year there was "a kind of explosion" in Net-related issues at Amanda's independent middle school - "it exploded in parents' consciousness," not in kids' instant-messaging, she explained.
Parents would call her at school and say things like, "My child doesn't want to come to school this morning because of something another student said to her in IM last night." Or some preteen male students would tell their parents about how uneasy some sexually explicit IMs from girls in their class made them feel. Or a girl would be crying in Amanda's office about being kicked out of an IM conversation among friends the night before. Incidents like this, happening universally, are affecting kids' school time just as much as their social lives, Amanda and other school counselors and administrators have found.
Next week we'll look at the intelligent ways Amanda's school (which she asked not to be named) have dealt with instant-messaging issues among its students. This week: IM at home....
First, let's be clear: These are not high school students; they're mostly 11-to-13-year-olds. "I think this age group is so vulnerable and trying so hard to see where they fit, and some of the things they're trying are not healthy and not safe. They want their freedom, but they don't have it yet," Amanda explained. They don't drive, they're spread out geographically - they can't just get together and hang out whenever they want. "Their social world is through IM," and parents are "shocked and fairly naive" about what goes on in this virtual space (though not Betsy in Ohio - see below for her experience).
The problem - for both the kids and their parents - is that these very young people are literally "talking in a box. This is not language or communications as we have known it for centuries," Amanda said. Pre-adolescents, in many cases, are figuring out this new way of communicating and socializing as they go along, without social norms or adult guidance, much less immediate, face-to-face feedback from their peers. And their parents are figuring out how to help them process it - some being pulled pretty suddenly out of denial or out of a haze of parental busy-ness to deal with a strange sort of social emergency. Parents ask Amanda, "Why can't we track [monitor] this?" They don't understand the language of IM, the social dynamics, or the technology.
So, I asked her, what would she tell a parent who called her about something said in IM that was devastating to his child? "I tell them that, typically, it's good to communicate with the other parents involved." Do you ever sense reluctance? I asked. "We sense a lot of reluctance. That's probably why they call us [at school].... So I encourage them to communicate with each other, because it's important for them to establish a kind of social norm within this school community." It needs to become normal procedure that, when something upsetting comes up with our children on the Internet, 1) we talk with our children, 2) we talk with each other - parents of our kids' buddy list (the new "peer group"), and 3) if there's going to be school spillover and if the school can handle it (Amanda said her school usually likes to be informed), talk to a school counselor or administrator. Here are some thoughtful approaches for points 1 and 2:
- Talk to your child. "Have a really honest conversation about what's going on." It's another opportunity to work out "how much privacy and how much independence do I give my child? To answer those questions all parents have," Amanda suggests, it "helps just to start dialoging with the child about it - it kind of sets that open-communication norm - establishes expectations: 'I expect you to come and talk to me about what's going on on the computer.' "
The rule of thumb she gives students is, "Don't say anything over the computer that you would not say to someone's face. I suggest to parents that they tell their kids they're expecting that of them, that they need to be able to go on the computer and print off any IM message at any time and show it to me. Say in IM only what you're comfortable printing out and showing me."
From working with her middle-schoolers, she also feels "it's important to establish boundaries, then stick to them. I think parents are sometimes reluctant to do that because the technology's new to them. Do I think that taking away the IM is too harsh? Absolutely not. Removing the PC from the bedroom? Absolutely not. When I was little - if my parents didn't like it that I was spending too much time on the phone, or a boy was calling me after 9 o'clock, my parents took my phone away. They'd say, 'let's talk about this. How can you use the phone responsibly?' And when I got to that place where I could do that, they'd let me have the phone back. It's the same thing with IM or email." One final point she really wanted to stress in our interview: "Where the carpet is most worn in the house, that's where your computer goes. No kids' bedrooms, or anywhere they can do IMing late at night."
- Talk to the other parent(s) involved. "This [IM communications] is so new for these parents, at least our students' parents," Amanda said. That's a good thing to acknowledge right up front when you talk to each other - we're figuring this out together. "It's just an awareness thing - we're not judging. Nobody's pointing fingers. Tell the other parent you're just letting them know. A lot of times I have them put it back on me - 'Amanda told me to call and talk to you about this.' I don't mind," she said.
"Say for example a parent knows one of her kid's friends, Sally Sue, is on his buddy list, and Sally Sue is using sexually explicit words. If parents feel the IM is not age-appropriate or too socially advanced, obviously they're going to have to talk with their child, and call other parents and say, 'Hey, I'm just calling you to give you a heads-up because my son came to me about something, and I don't completely understand this IM thing, but I understand my son's uncomfortable.' I generally suggest that, when making a call like this, the parent should say what he or she is uncomfortable with first, then talk about what the child is uncomfortable with.... You could end with something like, 'With this new technology and with our kids being the age they are, all of us are learning this together, and I just want to open up a conversation about it so we can deal with it together.' "
Next week: Dealing with IM issues at school - click here
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A mom writes: IM impersonations
I so appreciate our subscribers' timing and good parenting sense. Just as I was working on this week's feature, subscriber Betsy in Ohio emailed us with a question about IM parental controls (which aren't - can't be - provided by the free, public IM services like AIM, ICQ, or Yahoo Messenger). When I replied, she kindly, over several email exchanges, shared her experience with an IM trick a couple of kids close to her had played on peers. Her account echoes several things Amanda touched on. Note what she says about being in touch with other parents and what she told her daughter in incident No. 2 (it's as if she's been talking with Amanda too!)....
"One flaw of the AIM system [or any free IM service available to all] that all should be aware of is this: If your child goes to a friend's house and logs on ... AND stores his or her password on the friend's computer [by mistake, since many PCs "remember" passwords], the friend can pretend to be your child when talking to others over the system. We had a recent incident here ... where one boy was pretending to be another and IMing a girl making lewd comments. Somehow, the girl's mother saw this text and actually printed it out. She didn't believe it was the boy whose screen name was displayed and asked around to the mothers of the group. The offending boy was caught and we all were the wiser."
When I asked her about her kids, she thoughtfully filled the picture in a bit more in subsequent emails:
"I have three kids, a daughter, age 10, and sons ages 12 and 14. All three IM, and the youngest even tried to impersonate a friend who had logged her password on our computer. Her brothers found out before I did and, as kids do, they tattled on her. I was grateful. She and I had a 'little chat.'
"Our 'chat' included: how impersonating a friend is lying, being dishonest to that friend, possibly ending good friendships with the person who you pretended to be and the person you were IMing; that you have to go to school the next day and face up to what was written, even if you were pretending to be someone else.... I don't think this has happened again in our house. I really rely on other parents to help me monitor my own kids."
Do email me about your experiences and family policies anytime - via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Web News Briefs
- Congress: After those pirates!
It's up to Congress, US lawmakers apparently feel, to protect the music biz from copyright pirates. Two bills are in the works - the Induce Act in the Senate and the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act in the House of Representatives. This summer, Sen. Orrin Hatch announced that they "must pass legislation this year that would effectively drive online digital music swapping companies out of business," the Washington Post reported. The Induce Act would allow recording companies and movie studios to sue file-sharing networks like Kazaa or eDonkey for enticing their users to illegally share copyrighted tunes and films. The other bill, passed by the House this week, focuses more on consumers/file- sharers. It would - if signed into law - make it a crime both to share large numbers of music files on P2P networks and to use video cameras to record films in movie theaters, the Associated Press reports. Here's the New York Times's coverage Thursday, before the Senate vote. Meanwhile, debate - between entertainment industry people and P2P providers over the legality of file-sharing - raged at the Digital Hollywood conference in L.A. this week; here's CNET's report.
- Vote 2004: Helping young critical thinkers
Could there be a more "teachable moment" for working with our kids on critical thinking? At least for Americans, at a very polarized point in our political history? Besides the flood of "information" we all face, for young media consumers, "it's not always obvious how to make the leap from a civics lessons involving founding fathers wearing powdered wigs to slick political ads on TV," as Shelley Pasnik puts it. So - just in time - Shelley, creator of The PBS Parents Guide to Children and Media, has just published an article, with links to other Web resources, on working with kids through all the 2004 Election "truths." I think teachers will find this very useful, too, and Shelley's basic points - such as how myths are easier to promote than facts and how soundbites differ from policy - are relevant to parents and educators in any country.
- Beware IM virus
This week's was an "early warning" from the Internet Storm Center (ISC, a Net security experts cooperative), but IM users and their parents should be on the alert. The ISC warned that the profiles of AIM users (the personal descriptions users provide which anyone can look up) are vulnerable to malicious hackers, Internet News reports. Basically, they attach virus-infected image files to the profiles, and send an IM to people enticing them to "go to my profile and check out this photo." When the photo's downloaded, the viewer's PC gets infected. Tell your kids not to be fooled by invitations like this especially from anyone they don't know (and they do know not to put any personally identifiable information in their profiles, don't they?!). The BBC calls these images "poisoned pictures." They have already turned up in an older, more techie venue called newsgroups.
- Non-stranger danger
"Don't talk to strangers" only confuses kids, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). An article in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reiterates this message that I'm hearing from other expert sources as well (see my 8/27 issue about findings from a University of New Hampshire study on this). The article refers to arrests of fairly reputable people in the Rochester area who have been arrested for child sexual exploitation: a deputy sheriff, a retired Orleans County Court judge, a prominent physician, and school official. The point is not that they're prominent but that they are not the stereotype sexual predator - the guy in a trench coat lurking behind a bush near some playground. NCMEC says the danger of sexual predation is greater from someone you or your children know than from a stranger. In a blue column to the right of the article are five tips from the National Center on keeping children safe from sexual exploitation. Parents should also know about the Center's CyberTipline, where incidents of exploitation, online enticement/luring child pornography, or sexually explicit material sent to children can be reported via a Web form (click on "Report" at CyberTipline.com) or a toll-free number (800.843.5678). You can contact the CyberTipline even if you're worried that a child is being sexually exploited.
- Digital divide & kids: Fresh data
According to the latest figures available, in the 2003-04 school year, 61% of US 8-to-18-year-olds used the Internet daily, 74% had access at home, and 96% had gone online (experienced the Net at least once). Those figures are from a just- released Kaiser Family Foundation study, "Digital Divide...Where to Go From Here," urging policymakers to refocus on this issue. The 96% figure, encouragingly, showed "no significant differences according to race, parent education, or median income of the community in which the children went to school," the report says, but that's not the most revealing figure where the digital divide's concerned. It's the figures for "have Net access at home" and "use the Net on a typical day" that show us how well we're closing the gap, and the study shows we still have work to do.
- E-books for needy kids
There's a wonderful project, Anywhere Books, that's putting books into the hands of children who wouldn't otherwise have them. Using Internet sources such as Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, the Anywhere Books's "digital bookmobile" - "a van outfitted with a laptop, laser printer, bookbinding machine, and cutter," Wired News reports - recently visited Gulu, Uganda, for example. It provided books for "children commonly referred to as night commuters," according to Charles Batambuze, a librarian with the sponsoring National Library of Uganda who was in Gulu for the event. "They move from their homes every evening to spend the night in the safety of Gulu town. These children displaced by war together with their teachers and parents attended a children's reading tent event held on 27th-28th March 2004 at Gulu Public School," Charles reported, adding that English is the language of instruction in Ugandan Public Schools. Peter Rabbit and Alice in Wonderland were among the more popular books printed for the Gulu students. Anywhere Books told Wired News that "on average, there is one textbook for every six kids in Uganda."
The site "boasts ratings for 887,000 public and private schoolteachers in four countries" and last week received its 6-millionth teacher rating, up from just 1 million about a year ago, the Christian Science Monitor reports. RateMyTeachers "relies on hundreds of student volunteers who monitor postings for accuracy and taste in the US, Canada and now Britain and Ireland," according to the Monitor. "Anyone can click a tiny red flag next to a comment to automatically remove it from the site pending review by a staff member." What do teachers think of this? The Monitor found that, generally, teachers with high ratings think it's fine, and vice versa. If nothing else, it certainly must force some soul-searching. Is that fair? One teacher mentioned in the article says yes, because teachers rate students all the time. Guess he has a point!
- Legal movies
I covered "Legal music," but I left out films. Your kids probably already know of these, but USAToday brings us up to date on this front with "Download movies from Web can be easy, legal." Columnist Kim Komando names four major film sources, all of which offer trial memberships. Important caveat: Don't try 'em if you don't have a high-speed Net connection. Otherwise, movies take way too long to download.
- 4-H site by kids, for kids
National 4-H Week (10/3-9) is all about the Internet this year, because 93% of 10-to-18-year-olds "are actively online and want to find the information they need from online sources," the Monroe [Wisc.] Times reports. Part of the celebration will be the unveiling of 4-HUSA.org, redesigned over the summer by 14 teen 4-H members throughout the US. "The site features the most complete list of 4-H Web sites available, organized by state, and many interactive elements, including a national calendar of events and featured news headlines. Coming soon are games, message boards, Web logs and myname@4-Husa.org e-mail aliases," according to the Monroe Times. With some 7 million participants nationwide, 4-H is an educational program for youth 5-19 associated with the US Department of Agriculture.
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!
Anne Collier, Editor
Net Family News
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