Everything your children post on their digital profiles, even under aliases, will follow them as long as we have electricity.
In the previous principle, I mentioned the flexibility of the self as expressed through various career possibilities. What if you could look back at all the dreams you have expressed in your life, through various hybrid identities and various periods of development, and watch the progression of your interests and goals. Our kids probably will. And so, much more than we ever were, they are building a story of their lives. While flexibility is important, so is structure. The digital output of a person's life has an emergent architecture. The new concern arising out of the constant archiving, permalinking, and trackbacking is the need for long-term identity management.
Enter you the parent. It's important to continually frame the choices your children make online in the context of a lifetime. This is meant not only as a warning, but also as a rallying cry for helping your child explore his identity by perceiving it as a story with a past, present, and future. And this greater awareness of temporality, of position in their own life, can be hugely beneficial for children, helping them set goals or endure struggles.
This raises also the question of whether or not to make a profile, blog, or message board public or private. An example comes to mind: two friends of mine kept an extremely detailed blog of their son's life. While it was meant for family and friends, it was also open to the public. One day, they discovered that someone had loaded the comment trails with an alternate story, literally retelling and reshaping the family identity with the stroke of a few keys. They immediately deleted the comments and made the blog private. Is this an act of censorship on their part, and was the instinct to hide from further attacks in the best interest of their son? From a continuity perspective, this could have been viewed as just another facet of the story of his life, another facet to his identity. They could have left the blog the way it was and told the story of what happened. We can’t erase trauma from our memory, so should we erase it from our digital memories? It is something worth considering. If you don’t manage your life story, someone else will.
I don't blame my friends for making the site private and saving themselves the headache of contextualization; social networking terrorists are everywhere, as are other online predators. While their son was not hurt mentally or physically in any way, it still raises the question, what is a rational level of security?
Don't let parental fears inhibit your children's freedom of communication and expression.
Sadly, any discussion concerning the activities of children on the Internet requires some attention to the subject of safety and avoiding predators. The Federal Trade Commission lists several tips for Tweens and teens about staying safe in the social networking space, and there are a new set of discussions that parents must have with children. I'll try and keep this from sounding like a set of rules for protecting your children from the evils of the web. But while making connections is important, safety is paramount. The truth is that sites like MySpace and Facebook are often inhabited by predators. But then again, so is the physical world. Balancing freedom and safety is a critical necessity here.
The PIP found that "45% of parents of online teens say that they have monitoring software installed on the computer that the teen uses at home." But the Panopticon is not an approach you want to adopt, and many of the dangers that face your child online come from websites this monitoring software would classify as safe. The key isn’t what sites your children are on, but what behaviors they engage in while there. Collaboration and transparency are the best ways to keep your children safe.
The level of predators varies based on your child's age. Tweens and pre-tweens may have to deal more with the realities of cyber-bullying than sexual predators. We have all heard stories of kids altering other students’ profiles or Photoshopping their images in malicious ways. Teach kids, at an early age, the behaviors that will protect them against this kind of threat as much as possible.
A close friend of mine has an eight year old son who has been using Club Penguin for some time now. She checks his account periodically just to make sure that everything is okay, as well as to see if he is deriving value from the experience. Recently, she found that he had been “purchasing” items in the online world that, according to his currency levels, he should not have been able to afford. When she asked him what was going on, he very innocently told her that he had given his password to an older kid who knew how to earn these extra items. The other child was logging into her son's account to make the modifications. Now, CP has a broad user base, but it's heavily monitored. It would be almost impossible for a predator to take advantage of someone. With this security in place, my friend's son providing his password to another child is not that big of a deal. But what's at stake here is a code of ethics. Is this a behavior she wants her son to continue?
Beyond protecting their passwords, children must protect their identities, as well. We’ve already talked about using pseudonyms, especially as a young child. But when social networking becomes about the child’s real identity, the discussion of what information to reveal must change. As a rule, they should avoid anything that would allow them to be easily located by someone who views the profile, and, as they get older, anything that they wouldn’t be comfortable with their parents, teachers, or potential employers seeing. In a knowledge economy, self-presentation is everything. Many kids may sabotage themselves by putting information on their profiles intended to “look cool” – information about drinking, drugs, sex, and other behaviors that make them a potential target for predators and a questionable hire for companies. CollegeRecruiter.com reports "that about five percent of employers now research applicants on sites like Flickr, MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook, and that number is growing every day. In addition, studies indicate that 77 percent of employers use the Internet as part of their background checking process, and that 35 percent have rejected candidates as a result of the information they found online."
Many of these issues can be solved by keeping profiles private, rather than public.
Lastly, remember not to totally discount the fact that your kids are often more savvy than you. The Pew Internet Project reports that, "most teenagers are taking steps to protect themselves online from the most obvious areas of risk. The new survey shows that many youth actively manage their personal information as they perform a balancing act between keeping some important pieces of information confined to their network of trusted friends and, at the same time, participating in a new, exciting process of creating content for their profiles and making new friends. Most teens believe some information seems acceptable – even desirable – to share, while other information needs to be protected."