When my wife and I have kids, we decided that one of my tasks as a father will be a social media watchdog. That means monitoring our children’s social media usage and staying up on the latest & greatest Internet, web and mobile technologies that may cross their paths.
I love social media. You’ll find me on practically all of the popular services, and many of the newer ones still in “beta.” I publish frequently and share generously. But I do so with a careful eye. At least, I do now.
Way back when the word “blog” was still “web log,” I had this site. I called these writings my “Rambles.” Although most topics were personal essays that covered events in my life, many were works of fiction and some were opinion pieces & rants. It was through one of these opinion pieces that I stupidly discussed a personal issue of a friend of mine.
The friend read the piece, sent me a painful email, and I lost that friendship.
It was a hard lesson in sharing over the web. One that I will never forget; one that I will definitely teach my children someday.
Nowadays, sharing over the web is a lot more complex. Back when I started, there were no such things as privacy filters. If you published it, anyone could eventually find it (unless it was password-protected, which few did).
With the rise of social networking sites, the minutiae of who-sees-what has gotten a lot more complicated. Settings may be hard to find. You may forget to actively manage your privacy settings. Companies can change the options on you, accidentally or intentionally. Hackers could break into your account. And companies could shut down, taking all of your posts and shared items with them.
In other words, there is a thinly veiled belief of privacy that lulls some users into a false sense of security. The truth is, if you don’t want to share something with strangers, don’t post it on the web. Don’t share your password, don’t share your home address, don’t share geo-tagged photos your children or house. Abstinence is the best form of safety.
That isn’t to say sharing over the web is a bad thing. Far from it. Part of the grandeur of the web is all the fantastic things others have shared. Online communities can support, shelter and heal. News from across the world can reach you in mere seconds. Internet messaging can maintain relationships with acquaintances, people you might not otherwise talk to on a regular basis.
If you’re of the baby boomer generation, you probably remember the concept of a pen pal. For you youngun’s, that was someone your own age who lived far away, usually in another country. You and this person, this pal, would write letters to each other with a pen and paper. Hence, pen pal.
I had a pen pal once. Well, he was more like an email pal. We both were into heavy metal, so we’d exchange emails about the new bands and albums we discovered. He lived in Europe and told me all about the huge metal scene over there, while I filled him in on the American scene.
What I’ve learned over my years of Internet usage (and that encompasses the web, email, newsgroups, chat, etc) is the nuanced set of acceptable and safe behaviors. At least, I like to think so.
There’s really a range of acceptable behaviors, and it varies from online community to online community. What is acceptable in one is not in another. And even then, each individual has his/her own particular sensitivities. What offends one person may not offend another.
If that all sounds like quite a quagmire, consider all of the real-life social groups in which you belong. Your family, your classmates, your coworkers, etc. You probably have many circles of friends, each with its own set of acceptable behaviors and sensitivities. Same goes for the online world.
The big difference is you grow into each real-life social group slowly. You start with your family. Then grade school friends. Then high school friends. And so on.
Each of those groups grows with you. Each member goes through the same awkward lessons you do, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time. Each painful lesson teaches you and shapes your social maturity. You learn to understand social cues, vocal inflections, body language, slang, pop culture, etiquette, boundaries, etc.
For young children, this is especially important. The first social group – the family – provides them with a safe, nurturing environment in which to learn how to interact appropriately.
But what if you’re thrown into a world before you’re ready to deal with it?
In the online world, the members vary in social and emotional maturity. They aren’t necessarily in the same range as you. There are some social networks that restrict by age and geography, but the majority do not because they want more users through inclusiveness rather than tighter but smaller communities through exclusiveness.
Along those same lines, a child may interact with his/her family, relatives, family friends, and neighborhood friends in real life. As parents, you can control this. Again, there are some emerging social networks that offer this kind of control, but the majority do not. The general fear – and it’s a real fear – is of predators. Individuals who seek to do harm. There’s a range of this too, from bullying to abduction. All of it scary and all of it harmful.
Also, social feedback exists online, but immature outbursts and reactions are more permanent. Amongst a group of friends, poor behavior can be excusable. It may even stay within the group, if you’re lucky. On the Internet, such behavior could live forever and be found by future employers.
One last point. The lessons on the Internet come much faster. Real life interactions are limited by geography. Children can only interact with the people around them. One of the great things about the Internet is its expansive nature. But for a child who hasn’t yet gained a sense of emotional and social maturity, the volume of interactions – not to mention information – can be staggering.
This is just off the top of my head, of course. I’m not a child psychologist, digital sociologist, or even a “social media specialist.” I’m just a concerned guy who’s trying to anticipate the potential lessons I’ll have to teach about the emerging world of social media. My views may change as I educate myself, find actual research papers on these topics, talk to people way smarter than I, and, you know, have children.
I should also add that I love the possibilities that technology offers to future generations. My children will learn, know, and do things I cannot even begin to fathom. And I don’t want to hold them back at all; the last thing I want to do is shelter them. Life is not fair nor perfect; there are bad people out there, as well as good. A dad can only tell his kids so much before they stop listening to him.
The crux of it all is really emotional and social maturity. Having a healthy sense of self, empathy for others, and understanding of society is, in my opinion, the key for navigating the online world. Since the Internet can be a firehose, my role as a social media watchdog will be to tighten the nozzle and gently release it as my children become ready for more.