The Risk of Misplaced Myspace Hysteria

Posted by Andrew Brandt

Last week, many of us read about yet another incident involving MySpace, the social networking site that has become so popular with teens and tweens. In the latest news, one teen was arrested and twenty were suspended from school after taking part in a MySpace "community" called I Hate [another student's name], in which the arrested teen posted a blog item about shooting the subject of the blog in the face with a shotgun. The same student also made anti-semitic remarks in other postings.

In this case, this was entirely the correct action to take. School districts are a lot better at identifying Columbine-esque warning signs, and they're not sitting idly by while students write harassing and threatening things on blog pages about their fellow students. These students were way out of line, and need to learn a hard lesson about online misbehavior and consequences in the flesh-and-blood world.

But I see another danger here: Knee-jerk parental reactions shutting down a line of communication between parent and child. I heard it from the very first caller to a talk radio show I participated in last Friday (RealAudio stream, Real player required), and I read vitually the same thing from the very first commenter to the blog item Ramon McLeod posted on Friday.

The reaction I'm talking about goes (approximately) as follows:

As soon as I found out what some kids do on MySpace, I scolded my kid(s)/took the computer away and said they couldn't ever go back there.

Sarcasm alert: Yeah, that strategy always works. Kids couldn't just use the computers at school or at friends' homes.

Seriously, I'm not out to minimize or mock a parent's (or a teacher's or a school administrator's) desire to protect children. These parents are freaked out because, well, sexual predators may actually know more about their kids' online activities than they do. But, people, ask yourselves: Is that the kid's fault? What's the parent's responsibility to, you know, be even peripherally aware of what their kids are doing online, not to mention (gasp) teach them right from wrong? And is throwing down the gauntlet and building a wall around your kids always the best way to protect them?

Schools have a role to play here, too. The almost ubiquitous presence of computers in the classroom seem to beg for a curriculum about both online dangers and responsible computer use, something that addresses the "why" questions. These kids who love MySpace aren't just shouting across the playground. They are becoming publishers, every single one, with access to a potential audience of millions around the world. As such, we need to teach them what it means to be a publisher, and how to avoid getting into trouble.

But knee-jerk reactions are even more prevalent in some schools among administrators: In one notable recent case, a teacher was suspended and "escorted from the building" after the broadcast journalism group she supervises produced a hard-hitting segment about the dangers of MySpace.

Think about that: She helped teach an entire school about cybersafety, in a way that engaged and motivated students...and was severely punished for it.

Parents, schools, and the people who run MySpace have a tremendous opportunity here. The publicity about the dangers of, for instance, kids posting lurid, but make-believe, details about their lives could lead to a great discussion about how online sexual predators operate -- and how to protect yourself by not posting personal details about your school, birthday, bar-hopping habits, or anything else that could help a predator find victims. There are terrific resources out there that can grease the wheels for such a conversation.

A whole generation of both kids and adults don't understand Internet safety topics that are, in essence, the online equivalent of 'look both ways before you cross the road' and 'don't talk to strangers.' The adults' ignorance has made them fearful, and that fear leads to irrational decisions being made -- to lock kids away from the Internet, to suspend teachers who broach the subject of improper behavior online -- in the name of ... what? Safety?

I worry that this trend could deal a crushing blow the possibility of constructive dialogue between kids and adults about safety, online and offline. My challenge to those folks is: prove me wrong.

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Andrew Brandt
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