For Teens: What we tell parents about the social Web

We talk to parents a lot about safety on the social Web, so you guys deserve to know what we're saying.

By Anne Collier

You're probably not surprised that we're telling parents they need to know about “Web 2.0,” this new phase of the Web that is as much about what people upload as what they download. What may surprise you is that we're telling them they probably don't want to overreact about what they see in the profiles, comments, photos and videos on blogging and social-networking sites.

I'll tell you why we’re telling them that in a minute. First, for your background, here's what we're telling them about Web 2.0 – that it's increasingly…

* Multimedia – video, audio, photos, text – whatever medium people prefer
* Mobile – accessible increasingly anywhere, on multiple devices (desktops, laptops, game players, cellphones, and video music players, wired and wireless)
* Multidirectional – one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, many-to-many: the viral, peer-to-peer, or P2P, form of communications, with the line between publishing and communicating blurring
* User-driven – the Web as the land of everybody-published content, including kid commentators, videographers, organizers, marketers, retailers, hackers, etc.

Having described the broadband Web that way, we start with…

The upside. We tell them you're doing great things with this convenient, highly accessible medium for self-expression. You're writing, editing, and uploading your own songs, videos, and commentaries for peers to critique and pass around. You're broadening your horizons by communicating with people who have similar interests in other parts of the world. You're launching your careers early by developing portfolios and storing them online (for free) and networking and extending your networks of contacts long before they graduate from college. The Internet is allowing you to stay in touch with and up-to-date on old friends and maintain large circles of friends from wherever you are, easing tough transitions and cushioning big changes. We're also telling them researchers and psychologists say teens are using the Web as a relatively safe place to try on different personas, interact, and figure out who they are in an important process of self-actualization.

The downside too. We also mention the flipside because we feel that – on this very public scene – you need some backup. So we tell them that in many cases everybody – peers, parents, police, predators, the entire Web public (all those Ps!) – can see what many of you post and upload online. You probably don’t think so, but in most cases, this is good, a necessary protection until all teens learn to use the Web wisely (you personally are already there of course, right?). We tell them that not just police, school officials, and prospective employers but parents too need to get up to speed on this part of your lives. “Oh great,” you’re probably thinking, but that will actually help support better policymaking at home, in schools, and by local, state, and federal governments.

Games, blogs & bullies. We tell parents that all the media coverage about sexual predators on social-networking and blogging sites is the scariest-sounding but actually less threatening part of Web 2.0 for the vast majority of kids and teens. The next wave of concern, we tell them, and one that will be felt in much greater numbers, is peer stuff. (And the gamers among you know it's not just about socializing at Xanga or MySpace and other blogging sites, it's Xbox Live and other game-chat opps.) On a day-to-day basis, you guys spend an awful lot more time dealing with each other – most of it good or neutral, some of it pretty tough, as with all communication and social experience – than with strange adults.

We feel they need to know that because most of it's just part of life and developing social skills, which parents need to know is mostly good and deserves their reasonable engagement and support. But, we tell them, your online social lives also sometimes include harassment, the uploading of explicit photos to show off or get reactions, uploading videos of property being vandalized, party photos taken and uploaded via camera phones, digital gossip via instant-messaging, dissing teachers and threatening schools, etc., etc. – just about all of which can be grabbed by anyone on the Web, pasted into others' sites, shared on the P2P networks, and so on. All this, too, has been in the news, and what it should say to you is you need to become your own spin doctors. Many of you know, of course, that you guys need to be alert to the fact that you have privacy and reputations to protect – that college admissions officers and prospective employers do Web searches on people too.

The parental part
. This is where we tell our fellow parents that – especially on Web 2.0 – it's not good to overreact. Overreaction shuts down communication, and communication with people who care about you is one of the two best protections you have in this very public space, where peers and nasty, bad-intentioned people can do anything they want with the stuff you post and upload. The other one, the best protection of all, is your own good sense. Until you're alert all the time and learn how to do your own spin control (or worse: damage control), you may need your parents as backup, we tell them. They don’'t want to jeopardize that. Neither do you.

Your part. But to avoid or ease their overreaction, there are some really helpful things you could do (really helpful to you and your well-being online as well as really helpful to your parents):

* Privacy honored. As you've probably heard many times, don't post any information that identifies you or places you geographically. If teens want parents to honor their privacy, it helps if teens honor it themselves.
* When in public. Be alert whenever you're in public places on the Web – when you're blogging, posting, or uploading publicly without privacy features or tools turned on. You know people aren't always who they say they are – just never forget that when you're online. A 14-year-old gamer we know says he thinks it's just good policy never to let his guard down online.
* Unknowns. Be smart about how you handle encounters online with people you've never actually met in person – don't interact with them unless you're sure they’re not going to end up harassing you, block them if they do, and never meet anyone offline without at least one friend with you, ideally more than one, and even more ideally not without telling your parents.
* Educate your parents. An informed parent is a more relaxed parent. It's human nature to fear the unknown, right? So, because parents are human too, it's much more effective to explain social-networking, etc., to your parents and show them around a bit than to say they’re being absurd about your online activities.

Your parents may have shown you newspaper articles or TV news shows about scary things happening in social-networking sites. A lot of parents still don't know these cases aren't what normally go on in teens' online experiences. You can help them get some perspective by telling them what your experience actually is. In this way, teens can turn their parents into advocates for safe, constructive use of Web 2.0 – part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

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