There has been a lot of news coverage about the legal issues surrounding the Megan Meier case, but not many useful takeaways for parents and kids. Here are some great talking points for family discussion from Nancy Willard, author of Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens and director of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use….
* "Megan was allowed to establish a friendship link with someone who was not known in person by her or her friends. Especially when starting an account on a social-networking site, teens should link only to friends. Later, they may expand to acquaintances or friends of friends – someone known in person by a person they know. This way, they know that no false persona has been established. When they are much older [maybe 18+], perhaps strangers.
* "Whenever they establish a friendship link – especially to someone they do not know well – they should take the time to carefully review the person's profile to see if anything posted causes concerns. What are this person's friends like? What images has this person posted? How does this person communicate in public and private? And how does all of this reflect on this person's values? They might also want to keep in mind that others will be judging them based on their friends, images, and communications.
* "They need to be very alert to signs that someone is trying to manipulate them. The key signs of this are overly friendly messages, including comments like, 'Wow, you're hot,' "I am really glad I met you" and the like. [See "How social influencing works."]
* "Teens also should be very careful if anyone appears to be trying to establish a special relationship – when there is really no 'real world' basis for that relationship.
* "Teens are going through a very vulnerable time and really want to find acceptance. So they are vulnerable to fantasy online love. They send messages back and forth indicating how much they love the other person – just because they want to receive these same messages and it's fun to think you have this great love relationship – just like in the movies. They need to understand how to distinguish between fantasy love and real relationships that are healthy and viable.
* "If someone starts to communicate in a hurtful manner, the appropriate response is to leave the site, end the communication, and/or block the person. Filing a complaint [as in using social sites' "Report abuse" buttons] may also be an option. If someone makes you mad online, keep your hands off the keyboard – because you will just make things worse [emphasis mine]."
So the key take-away, I think, is that the younger the child the more important it is to keep online socializing as grounded as possible in real life. As teens mature, their brains are developing, particularly the impulse-control "executive" part that understands consequences, so they generally get better at navigating the complexities of their social networks – the developing social norms, tools, signals, and relationships. It's a lot to figure out, and they deserve not just advice but, more importantly, the steady back-up that a parent or other caring adult mentor can offer: perspective that is always running in the background and ready to come forward at teachable moments – hopefully in a loving, nonconfrontational way that keeps communication lines open.
Readers, your own additions, responses, tips, and experiences are most welcome in our ConnectSafely forum or via email to anne[at]netfamilynews.org. With you permission, I like to publish them for the benefit of all.
* All the details. Kim Zetter of Wired provided some of the most steady, in-depth reporting on the Drew case. Here's her blog and her participation in NPR's "Talk of the Nation" in a segment headlined "Is Creating a Fake Online Profile a Criminal Act?"
* Not the right law. "MySpace Suicide Prosecutors Used Wrong Law," by my ConnectSafely.org co-director at CBSNEWS.com
* Cyberbullying authority. "Age & identity misrepresentation on the Internet," by cyberbullying book author Sameer Hinduja, who was interviewed by the New York Times for its story on the Meier case