So we’ve ‘let our guard down’?

It’s interesting that Daily Beast writer Caitlin Dixon precedes her question “When did we let our guard down?” with the story of sleeping on strangers’ couch in Italy after finding them in a couch-surfing site. Yes, she let her guard down (but the people were great hosts). What’s interesting, though, is that she compared couch-surfing to connecting with people online. One could argue – and I’ve heard a professor, David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center do so – that the two aren’t equally risky. In fact, he suggested in his 2010 talk about “juvenoia” that the Web is quite possibly a risk reduction tool. Over the past several years I’ve heard and read about young people saying they use the Web for just that purpose – they make it a practice to check out the profiles of people they don’t know before agreeing to “friend” them in social media. This is smart use of social media that parents of people who don’t already have strategies like this in place might consider encouraging (or teaching).

Another protection is the social norms that are developing. For example, Dixon herself writes that “the majority of people who use online dating sites assume that other participants are misrepresenting themselves in their profiles.” And teen social media users reportedly have some practices and norms of their own in place. “For all Internet problems, the vast majority of [social networking] teens either had appropriate reactions or ignored the behavior,” wrote California State University psychology professor Larry Rosen in an academic journal in 2008. He said 92% “responded appropriately to sexual solicitations” and 90% to harassment. He defined “responded appropriately” as “telling the person to stop, blocking the person from commenting on their profile, removing themselves from the situation by logging off, or reporting the incident to an adult or to site.” Those apparently quite normative practices of teenagers were already in place five years ago. [For more prior to and since, see this and danah boyd on teens’ “social steganography.”]

What is and isn’t new

Dixon, the writer of the Daily Beast post, places herself in Generation Y, the people who grew up with the Internet, and asks, “Have we become too naive for our own good?” It’s a question that has been asked many times in association with technology (usually by people older than her, so she’s being very politically correct for her generation) but I’m really not sure it’s either a generational thing or an Internet thing. Backpackers bunked in with total strangers – sometimes in hostels, sometimes on couches – long before there were Web sites for couch-surfers. Dixon gives a number of examples of true Web-based naiveté and describes social-discovery apps like Grindr and MeetMe for meeting new people and sharing one’s location (or both). But she also cites the comment of a social media provider that people of like interests could, in real time, share their location publicly with one another across the Net in Usenet groups in 1980 – by typing it.

What’s different now is scale of use and convenience, not so much people’s (including teens’) behaviors. Usenet was more in the social margins (or unknown by most people), and it took a little more doing to use. Now, everybody seems to have cellphones, and social discovery and location-sharing take virtually no doing. Just download another app and click on a map – no typing required.

For dealing with what’s new

So meeting new people and sharing location are not new, but they’re now very easy for seemingly everyone, including kids with cellphones. So what’s the takeaway for parents? Well, there are a few:

  • We need more research on how many kids use geolocation and social-discovery tools (I’m not aware of any studies on young people’s use of either), why, and under what conditions
  • We need more research on what percent of minors who use these tools have protective strategies in place
  • With the understanding that most kids (like other people) are naturally self-protective and tend to be suspicious of “creepy guys” (though, in groups, kids are often less cautious), there needs to be candid parent-child discussion about these capabilities’ downsides as well as upsides, bearing in mind that…
  • These apps are proliferating, and parents don’t need to get caught up in the losing game of whack-a-mole by trying to learn about and block every one of them, but…
  • Depending on a child’s age, maturity, and parent-child trust levels, it can be a good idea to know what apps are on a child’s phone and to talk with the child about how he or she uses them (with younger kids, you could make it a rule that Mom or Dad is told when a new app gets downloaded and how it works).

Ideas for talking with kids

As the Internet Safety Technical Task Force brought out in early 2009, not all kids are equally at risk online. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an engaged parent or educator, so it’s quite likely your children or students either already have some pretty smart practices in place or just need a little thoughtful discussion about whether or how they’re using social-discovery apps and geolocation. It probably wouldn’t be helpful to use special terms like those, though – just ask if they’ve ever made new friends with an app, and if so whether they could tell much about them and what they could tell. See whether they’d share their location or meet someone in person and why or why not. They’d probably say no, but if they have met someone in person, it’s probably best not to show a reaction – just to ask what the circumstances were and whether there were friends with them. Then, if they say something that concerns you, tell them you’re concerned and why. But see how they respond to genuine curiosity, and ask them to demo apps you don’t understand.

As for kids without parents who’d read this, education about the positives and negatives of these technologies at school or in prevention and intervention work with at-risk youth is crucial – without scare tactics and ideally on or with the devices that use geolocation and social-discovery apps. If there’s a rule against cellphone use in classrooms, suspend the rule for this protective instruction (and have some extra phones handy for students who “didn’t bring theirs”)! [There’s real engagement when students can use their own phones, educator Tim Clark in Forsyth County, Ga., told me.]

Those new conditions I mentioned above – much greater scale (than Usenet in the ’80s or AOL in the ’90s) and convenience – indicate a whole lot more about technological change than about human change. I don’t think we have suddenly “let our guard down” (but in my next post, I’ll link you to an article indicating how careful we need to be about convenience). As for our kids, they don’t want to be naïve, manipulated, or unsafe. When we make their education about tech safety and privacy a respectful conversation aimed at effective participation, we’ll probably get a respectful response.

Next: where we as well as our children could be more alert

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