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The Pros and Cons of Social Networking

My apologies for the long post, but I'm not feelin' the love here and need to share that.

Always on the lookout for dialog on this topic, I followed a link in my email newsletter from Technology and Learning this morning to an article by podcaster and Web 2.0 advocate Terry Freedman. It's an interesting, casually phrased defense of social networks by an author who is clearly even more embedded in the phenomena than I. He admits/claims to be a member of no less than 63 networks (I haven't counted--should I?).

What to me is most interesting about the post, however, is not the article itself, but the first (and as of this writing the only) comment upon it, from renowned social network critic and self-proclaimed expert on children and the internet, Douglas Fodeman. Fodeman is founder and CEO of "Children Online, LLC" and Director of ChildrenOnline.org.

Fodeman, in his response comment, points Freedman and the rest of us to his recent article at the National Association of Independent Schools' "Resources" page, to read his article The Impact of Facebook on Our Students (January 12, 2009, Doug Fodeman & Marje Monroe). In this lengthy and extremely well-written article, the authors systematically make their case that online social networking is bad for children (Monroe, btw, is Co-Director of ChildrenOnline.org.

We have Facebook accounts and actually see it as a wonderful, and valuable, resource. However, just because Facebook says that anyone 14 years or old CAN use Facebook, doesn't mean that they should. It isn't an age-appropriate or developmentally healthy place for our children and younger teens to hang out. Facebook is not working to protect our children and the laws in our country are terribly inadequate to safeguard our children online, in general.
These are pretty hefty charges, and, by the way, the allowable age for a Facebook account is not 14 years, but rather 13. I know this both because by noon the day of his 13th birthday, my son had established his fb account and had nearly as many friends as I have on mine. It's also pretty clear at the extensive "Facebook Safety" page the folks at fb offer at their website. Let me quote from that site, to support the counterpoint I'm about to make:

Facebook aspires to be an environment where people can interact safely with their friends and the people around them. We have implemented many safety and privacy controls on Facebook as part of our goal to enable people to share their information with only the people they want to see it. And we are constantly improving our systems for identifying and removing inappropriate content and people from the site.

Children under 13 years old are not permitted access to Facebook. In addition, parents of children 13 years and older should consider whether their child should be supervised during the child's use of the Facebook site.

And here, friends, is my point: Families need to talk with their children, monitor (not constantly, sheesh, but sporadically) their children's use of the platform, just like they would any online activity. As interesting as ChildrenOnline's arguments can be--and I truly do not disagree with many of them--their conclusion that I don't believe that social networking is inappropriate or damaging to our children. I FIRMLY agree with one of Fodeman/Monroe's proclamations: "We need to help our students become more media-savvy, understand the value of personal information, and how to protect it." I just don't think that the way to do that is to label good tools "inappropriate." I have absolutely no doubt that the ChildrenOnline folks are well-intentioned, or that they have carried out the years of research they lay claim to at their website. I just have seen too much good connection to agree with their conclusion. It's simply not that simple.

An odd aside: When looking for information about Mr. Fodeman past his own organization's website, I came upon a page about using videoconferencing for distance learning put up long ago by my friend Steve Bergen, upon which my name appears in a list of educators directly after Douglas Fodeman's. I really did LOL at that one! It's a small world, smaller than we might sometimes think.

I have recently shared some resources for parents at our independent school, which can be found in wiki form at usnparentsdigitallife.wikispaces.com. I don't have a book (link to Mr. Fodeman's and Ms. Monroe's book, which btw I own and highly recommend) or a speaking program (link to ChildrenOnline's speaking programs--uses frames so click "Programs" in the sidebar)to sell with it, nor grants to support it, but it's there for one and all. There are many more resources about online safety available at the Facebook safety site noted above, and I'm going to just paste those in here as I take my leave--temporarily I'm sure--from this discussion...

Comments

Rob.Schwartz said…
It seems clear that it is necessary to find ways to protect our kids from sexual predators online. I’m pleased that MySpace and Facebook are taking steps that they can to help with this situation. Sometimes spotting a predator by name isn’t that easy when they use an alias for example. Besides identifying these people and shutting down their profiles, we can identify troubling behavior to help spot problems before they get too threatening. I work for a company -- YouDiligence -- which offers a service of monitoring activity on social networking sites . This was developed to help create a safe environment for social networking users. www.youdiligence.com
Terry Freedman said…
I agree with you, Scott, about talking to your kids. The same goes for school too IMHO. The interesting thing for me about that paper is that it's the most cogent argument in favour of teaching kids how to be safe in Facebook -- and therefore in favour of their using it -- I've come across in a long time!
Scott said…
Thanks for commenting, ya'll. Rob I looked at your site and it looks quite interesting, though controlling in a way that my personal family philosophy doesn't really jibe with. It may be useful for some though--I'm well aware that circumstances and relationships can differ wildly--so I've left your link in for others to check out for themselves. I for one don't believe there's an "Easy Button" to this one unless you are blessed with a strong line of communication with your children...

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