2009 May

Keeping Your Kids Safe Online, Part II

This is just a brief follow-up post to my previous essay about Keeping Your Kids Safe Online.  I’ve had several people send emails asking for links to additional online resources that they can consult for ongoing support in this area.  I dug around a little and I found the following websites that might be of interest.  If you know of others that I haven’t included, please feel free to add them to the list via the comments on this post. 

  1. The first site was actually suggested by a reader and it’s a site sponsored by and managed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited ChildrenNetSmartz.org.
  2. The National Crime Prevention Center has info about online safety on it’s McGruff.org website.  
  3. The Girl Scouts has a website where girls can talk to each other and girls and parents can get info about online safety.  LMK = Let Me Know.

Here’s a list of links to software and web-based tools parents can use to monitor their children’s behavior:

  1. Monitor your child on the web and on their cell phone with websafety.com.
  2. The McGruff site offers a free chat and web filter (McGruff Safeguard) – it monitors intstant messaging, social networks and website visits, just to name a few.
  3. Internetsafety.com has both a home and mobile version of its monitoring software.  You can keep a close eye on your kid’s internet usage and interactions on the web and the mobile web — which is a growing concern among parents.
  4. My Mobile WatchDog is another product that allows you to watch your kid’s cellphone activity.

Just to be clear, the Geek Girl’s Guide does not endorse or claim any in-depth knowledge of any of these products.  This is just a starting point, a simple resource list for parents to begin to explore the plethora of options available to them for limiting and monitoring their kids online behaviors.  I am not a big fan of limiting, unless it becomes necessary.  I am a fan of monitoring to inform an active, ongoing dialogue between you and your children. 

Stay tuned to the blog for the cell phone safety post I am currently working on.  We’ll explore the different types of phones and the different types of monitoring devices available to parents for cell phones. 

At the end of the day its communication, involvement and awareness that will keep your kids safe online.  Those things don’t come from a software package.  They come from you.


The Rules of Engagement (or Why I Said Oprah Doesn’t Get Twitter)

A couple of weeks ago Ashton Kutcher gave me a virtual smack on the nose.  Don’t worry.  I don’t plan on making this my claim to fame.  I had tweeted moments before that he and Oprah didn’t seem to get that Twitter is about ‘tweeting AND listening’ and this was his response.  I’ll say here what I said to my buddy Ashton in my reply – I want to be wrong.  But I don’t think I am.  See, engagement is a two way street.  Social media isn’t taking off the way it is because we can more easily push information to the masses, that’s just part of it.  It’s become a social phenomenon because of the interactive element – we put information, opinions and content into the universe and people respond to it.  We have whole conversations, sometimes in 140 characters or less.  But we have them.  And sometimes we have them with people we might never have known or connected with had it not been for this digital network. I’ve always said that the web is the great equalizer – it gives us access to people and ideas that 20 years ago would have been impossible to touch. What’s more, because of the web, we can influence those ideas.  Social media has taken that a step further by adding immediacy to the equation.  I can tweet a question, a news link, an opinion, a conversation starter, and I get an immediate, and sometimes very diverse set of responses.  It’s conversation in real time.

Before I got too far down the road in this discussion I wanted to make sure that my perspective on Twitter was accurate.  What was the point?  I mean — I see what the value is, and how it has evolved, and how the audience has responded to it.  But I wanted to understand the thinking that was the impetus for Twitter.  I happened upon this February article from the Los Angeles Times that discusses that very thing – why Twitter came to be. The article is sort of fascinating. But the piece that I found really intriguing was this:

The whole bird thing: bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds. The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it’s entirely dependent on the recipient. So we just fell in love with the word. It was like, “Oh, this is it.” We can use it as a verb, as a noun, it fits with so many other words. If you get too many messages you’re “twitterpated” — the name was just perfect.

“Meaning is applied by OTHER birds.” My issue with Oprah, and even Ashton, is that this social universe isn’t just about collecting followers.  It’s about conversing with them.  It’s tweeting and listening.  It’s hearing  them. Real engagement happens between people, not from them.  So, while Ashton’s 1 million plus followers, and Oprah’s nearly 900,000 followers are impressive (to someone, I’m sure), they aren’t really the point.  When I responded to Ashton’s reply to me I also said that I worry that this kind of communication will just be an extension of the celebrity bubble. I can expand on that here, because it’s my blog and I get more than 140 characters.  Those beautiful people in Hollywood that entertain us on the big and small screens are called celebrities because we celebrate them.  They are created and supported like any brand and, after a while, they are so insulated from the realities of everyman that they buy into their own celebrity.  I mean, come on, how can they not?  It’s the only world they know.  And we’re as guilty of it as them – -we’re the ones who elevate them and give them this kind of power and hang on their every word.  So Oprah really demonstrated a kind of entitlement that must come with celebrity when she signed up for Twitter, tweeted other celebrities right out of the gate, followed only 11 people (to the 900,000 following her), and now tweets every few days about random stuff (when she remembers to tweet).  She’s not really responding to anyone.  She’s not hearing people respond to her.  Essentially what’s happening here is Twitter is another channel for Oprah to broadcast her wisdom. 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m no different than any other woman in this country.  I love Oprah.   I would vote for her if she ran for president.  But I still don’t think she gets the *social* part of social media.  And that’s fine too.  She doesn’t have to.  She’s OPRAH, for god’s sake.  But what an amazing missed opportunity.  For her and for us.  Am I naive enough to think Oprah should respond to every nutjob who tweets in her direction?  No.  Am I stupid enough to think Oprah needs to bump up the people she follows to 900,000?  No.  But I do wish she’d take an interest in people that aren’t Larry King or Ashton or Demi.  Because that’s the beauty of what’s happening here.  It’s not our perfect figures or faces, our wallets or our celebrity that matter here (in the social media space). It’s our ideas.  It’s our participation.  It’s what we add to the experience.  It’s how we listen to and respect and interact with others. We’re just birds.  Oprah is just a lone tweeter. Tweeting at a wall.  A lone bird isn’t music. It needs other birds to create a sound that stops you dead.  That cacaphony.  That symphony that gets you looking up and smiling and realizing what happens when birds are truly engaged. Oprah needs other birds.

Keeping Your Kids Safe Online

The Geek Girls have had the privilege of working with and talking to a wide array of people over the last year.  We cover a lot of ground in our discussions and here on the blog.  I have to say, though, that there is one topic that baffles and disturbs me over and over again.  I can’t count the number of times I hear parents talk about how advanced their children are on computers and, by extension, online.  A good number of parents tell us that their kids know more about “this stuff” than they ever will and they basically let them handle it, mostly unmonitored.  I make it a point to never judge how people parent, because everyone needs to have the room to do their own thing.  But I do think that the web is no place to let a child, or an adolescent, run free and unfettered. And with the proliferation of mobile devices, the web is everywhere they are — which is, oftentimes, where parents are not.  I don’t want to mix words here – parents need to accept the expanding landscape of opportunity and potential trouble for their children, they need to embrace the technology around it and take an active role in monitoring their kids in the online space.

When I visited the Pew Internet website to get some statistics around the number of teens online I was struck by this quote in the sidebar of an article I was reading:  “Adolescents have been called “digital natives,” but data suggests that they are both comfortable with new technologies, and yet not always as technically savvy as we collectively believe them to be.”  This is sort of reflective of adolescence overall, isn’t it?  They are ready for responsibility, and yet not quite equipped to handle it all of the time. If we know they aren’t yet totally able to make the best choices, why do we give them the keys to the internet and trust they have the skills to manage anything they encounter when they’re out there? This post is probably the first of several.  This topic really requires relatively lengthy discussion and this is just a starting point.  As access to the internet becomes easier and necessary, this issue will become even more critical.  My first order of business is just encouraging the conversation. 

What is there to be concerned about if we’re separated from any potential problem by a device and distance?  Distance is easily surmountable and a device doesn’t protect you from anything.  Kids don’t think this through when they engage in behavior that their friends endorse.  Cell phones and rich media mean that compromising yourself on the web really just takes a few seconds.  And then it’s there forever.  By now, many of you have heard of ‘Sexting‘ — sexually suggestive text messages that may be accompanied by photos or videos of sexually charged behavior.  This topic is hot right now, and with good reason.  Teens are sexually exploratory by nature.  Sharing sexual materials via a computer or handheld device allows for a false sense of security.  For one, kids aren’t thinking about their futures in the moments when they might be making these questionable choices.  But when you’re talking to your teens about why this behavior is dangerous, its important to aknowledge that its not just about them making themselves sexually vulnerable, its also the fact that anything on the internet is forever.  While a sexually explicit message or photo might feel temporal today, the long term potential for damage is very real. 

Sexual predators are also a very real threat.  With global social networks experiencing massive growth, our kids are connecting to more strangers than we could possibly police.  Let’s face it, our children might have good instincts, but we know it takes maturity to really develop that 6th sense about people.  I like to think I’m a good judge of character or sincerity, and I still manage to surprise myself by investing in the wrong people every now and then.  Our kids need our help and we shouldn’t be apologetic about it.  The Geek Girls are often advising organizations about setting up acceptable use and privacy policies for social media. And yet, very few people ask about similar sorts of policies for their homes and families.  I think it makes sense.  Your family should have a set of values around acceptable behavior online.  You should be vocal about it.  Talk about what is appropriate and what isn’t and revise the list as necessary.  Your kids will roll their eyes at you no matter what you talk about, you might as well integrate online behavior.  But take it a step further.  Talk to your kids about how you plan to monitor their behavior online and what you’ll do if they push the boundaries you have in place.  Again – be unapologetic about your intention to friend them on MySpace or Facebook.  Oh yes — you are their friend! And there should be no social interactions online unless you’re right there.  In fact, here’s a list of 10 ways to keep yourself in the loop where your baby’s online behavior is concerned:

  1. Don’t allow laptops in the bedroom.  Desktops and laptops that are connected to the internet should be used in common spaces.  All teens want privacy, and that privacy can be exploited by predators.  You wouldn’t give your 12 year old the keys to your car.  Why would you give them a laptop with access to the entire world and let them take that behind closed doors?  Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones, your child is ‘perfect’ and you doubt they are at risk at all.  It’s not your perfect child you should be concerned about, it’s the experienced predator who manipulates his/her way into the homes and heads of vulnerable folks FOR A LIVING.  They are pros.  Your perfect kid is not.  Common space means your child is less likely to give a stranger the time they’d need to con them.
  2. Share passwords.  I know, its not a teen’s dream.  But if you raise them in an environment where this sort of information is shared as a matter of practice, it won’t seem so unusual.  Start young — when they begin using the web you establish their passwords for them and that’s just the way it is.  Make it clear that those passwords will be used to monitor activity because that is your job.  Again-be unapologetic about it.  Don’t give your kids grief for info you discover that isn’t dangerous.  Respect their privacy to the degree that you can.  Only respond or react to potentially dangerous or threatening behavior.
  3. Get on the networks your children are on.  If your kids are on MySpace and/or Facebook — so are you.  Don’t let them stay there unless they agree to friend you.  Be active, but not embarrassing.  I think visible parents are a great deterrent for potential problem friends.  But again, don’t say or do anything that your kid could be embarrassed by or this space will just cause conflict and you don’t need it.
  4. If your child is totally resistant to you being around for their online party – there are software options that are so stealth that you can monitor their every key stroke without them knowing.  I think it’s important to know this software exists, but I recommend a more open and honest approach because you get your kid thinking critically about their online behavior and it will help inform the person they become as they mature.  Encouraging that kind of open communication will also ensure that your child will talk to you if someone they don’t know or trust communicates with them online in a way which might be uncomfortable to them.  In fact that is the next point:
  5. Establish guidelines around when your child should inform you of certain behaviors or ask questions.  More is better.  Give them an open line for communication.  Commit to not freaking out on them for poor judgement if they tell you the truth about a person of concern.  Perhaps they did talk to that person and now they regret it – they need only tell you and you’ll pursue appropriate action.
  6. Children should never meet anyone they meet online in person unless you have prescreened that person and are able to attend the first meeting with them – in a public place.  Because the web is so integral in our communications it doesn’t make sense to expect that we won’t be making new friends online.  But there needs to be a screening process.  You should be sure of exactly who you’re meeting before that face-to-face meeting happens.
  7. One house rule needs to be – never share personal details with someone you think you know.  Full names, addresses, phone numbers — those are hard stops to conversations with strangers or new friends.  Unless you know who you’re talking to, this information should be deemed sensitive and not shared.  Once you have an established relationship, you should still avoid sharing this info until you can be sure you know who is receiving it.  Screen and meet in a public place. 
  8. Pictures and videos are easy to take and make and share.  We need to establish family guidelines around how those items are shared.  I’m a big believer in asking permission – encourage your kids to ask permission to share images.  Make them aware that if they don’t ask permission, you’ll find out anyway — you’re on their friends list, you have their passwords.  Talk about what kinds of pictures and videos are appropriate for sharing.  Check their images and videos.  Do not be afraid to enforce the rules you establish to the letter.  Better they have parental consequences to contend with versus long-term consequences of shared media that invites the wrong element into their lives, or demonstrates behavior they didn’t think enough about at the time.
  9. Be aware of where your child goes — check email, social network sites (the more likely place for interpersonal messages between kids), their cell phones.  Set limits on text messages and the amount and kind of media they can share.  Learn your way around a cell phone – not knowing how to text message is no excuse for giving your kid unparalleled freedom with their phones.  Get a family plan, review your statements closely, and grab your manual to learn how to send messages and media so that you can check their phones regularly.  Be open about it.  Remind them that this is your intention.  The shared passwords extend to the cell phone.  And your behavior guidelines apply to mobile behavior as well.  It’s all one web — at home and in their hands. 
  10. My final tip is probably the one I feel the strongest about — don’t leave the web to your children.  Don’t be resistant to the point that you put the burden of the web and technology entirely on your children.  This is the World Wide Web for a reason.  The technology is accessible.  You can do it.  And you can’t break it.  So don’t leave them out there to fend for themselves.  They need you.  The world is getting more and more complicated and noisy.  Your parental duty can’t stop because you’ve convinced yourself that young people know things you can’t possibly figure out.  Take the time to figure it out too.  Find online activities you can engage in together.  Don’t be sneaky.  Don’t act like this is coming from a place of distrust.  Just make transparency a family value and then enforce it.  You’ll all sleep better if you do. And, when in doubt, the Geek Girls are here for you.