Technology
Does Legislation Guarantee our Children Online Safety?

SB242 is currently making its way through the California legislature and according to SFGate.com:

“Under the proposal, social networking sites would have to allow users to establish their privacy settings–like who could view their profile and what information would be public to everyone on the Internet–when they register to join the site, instead of after they join. Sites would also have to set defaults to private so that users would choose which information is public.”

For those of us who are long-time Facebook users…that might sound vaguely like a return to the terms of use we initially agreed to when we created our accounts, before Mark Zuckerberg redefined privacy. I, for one, would prefer greater control over my personal information than I currently have using Facebook. At the moment, it feels as if I am buying my monthly social-networking access by giving away small pieces of my self in the form of soul-shaped personal anecdotes, childhood photos, and “likes.”  As time goes on, I am wondering if this degree of access into my personal landscape is equitable or advisable…

According to NBC Bay Area, there is a second component to this bill that has even further-reaching implications, in that it would essentially give parents editorial power over their children’s Facebook accounts:

The bill’s language also states that social-networking sites would have to comply with parental requests to remove information or photos from their children’s pages or accounts. The new bill “would require removal of that information regarding a user under 18 years of age upon request by the user’s parent, within 48 hours upon his or her request.”

Ironically, I had a problem with that portion of the legislation. It took me a little while to suss out exactly why I felt it was misguided, though. Sure:

  • It puts the greatest responsibility for a child’s online safety with the entity least-invested in the interests of the child: that is, the social networking site; and
  • It creates a false sense of online safety in which parents may feel that they don’t have to discuss the sometimes scary or uncomfortable pitfalls of social media (and can opt to simply protect their children) because they are “in control” of their child’s accounts; and
  • It has nothing to do with lowering gas prices, controlling health care costs, or creating jobs–which, as far as I’m concerned, are the only things elected officials should be working on right now–all of them (I don’t care WHAT committee they sit on…)

But those points weren’t my issue.

The big question I came away with after reading through this legislation is: In the world where this bill passes, what happens on the day after a child’s 18th birthday? Will he automatically emerge into adulthood hard-wired with the skills necessary to negotiate the online world safely and effectively? How?

In a possibly-related news story, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that:

“A majority of college presidents (58%) say public high school students arrive at college less well prepared than their counterparts of a decade ago; just 6% say they are better prepared.”

What (I immediately wondered) has changed in the last decade? Is it possible that in the wake of the financial crisis and the World Trade Center attacks we have responded culturally to a justifiable feeling of physical and economic vulnerability by becoming more protective of our children? If so, is the resultant protective response actually serving us or our children well?

Do not believe for a second that I am instead advocating to allow children unfettered, unguided access to social networking sites–the news is too full of tales of social media use gone awry. Children need to be taught appropriate online behavior just as they need to be taught the etiquette of “please” and “thank you.” The people best equipped to accomplish this, though, are their parents, teachers, librarians and all of the other trusted adults personally-invested in their well-being–not someone trying to sell them something.

I realized as I thought on this that I subscribe to the type of solution that Dr. John Duffy proposes in his new book The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. Like Dr. Duffy, I believe that my primary job as parent is to provide a safe environment for my child to learn, explore and make mistakes.

In the chapter entitled “What Never Works,” Duffy had some logical suggestions regarding social networking and teen development:

[Regarding] updates on social networking sites like Facebook…there is an element of public domain here. Inappropriate or overly revealing messages can absolutely present a safety issue, especially for younger children…Trust your instincts to know when your child is ready, and keep an eye on your child’s Facebook page. For the first couple of years, you should share her password so that you have access anytime.

The challenge, of course, is to be involved in your child’s online life while simultaneously keeping the following in mind:

If we choose to rescue our teen from every potential pitfall, we unwittingly disrupt her process and take some critical opportunities away from her. First, we take away any opportunity for learning from the experience. We also take away the satisfaction and pride that come with a problem well-solved. While we’re at it, we take away her ability to prove her competence, both to herself and to you, the parent. In doing so, we give her the false impression that we will always be there to pick her up when she falls. We create a wholly unnecessary dependency. Now, this may provide us as parents with a role to play, parent-as-hero, but it robs your child of the opportunity to ever feel like a hero herself.

What Dr. Duffy seems to be saying is that the best strategies to guiding children into the online world involve “scaffolded support” where the child is only helped in the areas where he cannot flourish independently; as the child gains proficiency, adult support is “faded out.”

When I think about it, I can see the allure of SB242–it sounds so simple and definitive in comparison.

 

(I received a copy of The Available Parent for review purposes.)

Andrea Schwalm

Andrea is a Family Development Credentialed parent consultant from Long Island, New York. She takes way too many photographs and really hopes that the aliens who find Earth first are the friendly, Star Trek kind...

4 Comments
Beth

May 21, 2011 7:43 am Reply

ok really??
What idiot leaves this it to the government to keep their kid safe? I mean really with as disfunctional as it is it’d be like letting Jeffery Dahmer babysit.

Rebecca Angel
Rebecca Angel

May 21, 2011 10:02 am Reply

I also think parental guidance, not relying on the government or controlling software, is the best way to go.

In my house we have one big computer in the living room. We all have to share it for work and school: I work at home and my two kids homeschool, so using computer time wisely is a huge lesson. And this makes using the internet inappropriately very hard to do.

I’m my daughter’s “friend” on facebook- we have fun leaving comments on each other’s wall. I’m not really sure making parents able to alter their kid’s page is really helpful in any way. If there’s some dire need (criminal activity) the law officers can force facebook to reveal passwords anyway.

However, I do agree with making privacy start out complete and then letting the user open up their information as a choice- instead of the other way around. But something our government has to force facebook to do? Waste of time.

Christine Schwalm

May 21, 2011 10:11 am Reply

It’s interesting, I just addressed this same issue on a home design site, but with all people, not just children. Are we trading personal information for convenience and technology in our lives? It’s very scary to think about how much of our personal info is out there and who might access to it.

boiselass

May 31, 2011 2:18 am Reply

If anybody believes that Facebook (among other sites) is secure is not fully aware of how internet security works. I guarantee that even if you mark your personal information not available to everybody, the applications that are not supposed to get your information unless you say so ARE getting your information without your say-so.
I don’t believe that legislation is key to online safety. I do believe that your children should not be left unattended on their cell phones AND on the internet. I can see wherever my son goes and read all of his texts if I feel like it. If you’ve ever had a pervert snake his way into your life, you would do the same thing. They are out there; they are disguised as professionals, ordinary guys etc. It’s a shame but a chilling truth. Be aware at all times of who is online with your children. If they are on FAcebook, do NOT allow any games or pages that request “allow this app to access your information”.

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