My biggest fear in the online world has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the safety of children. I think that on Facebook in particular, it’s really easy to do things that could have alarming consequences because everything seems so safe there on the surface. You can lock down your content, you’re talking to your friends and family for the most part…what could go wrong?
Unfortunately, as we have seen over the last couple of years particularly, a lot can go wrong, especially for kids and young adults who are trying to figure out that whole pesky “life” thing – both online and offline.
Now, I want to say two things. First, I am not saying that children should be tethered to their parents and prevented from exploring the online world. Second, what I will present here are worst case scenarios. However, I feel it’s important to occasionally sound the alarm and just say, “Hey, are we thinking about this?” There’s a particular reason I worry about that, too.
The stories I grew up with
When I was in middle school and high school, there were a lot of stories about kids who talked with people via AOL or other chat rooms. The kids got comfortable with people and agreed to meet them at a mall or at other locations. Those people they were meeting turned out to be the most unsavory kinds of people, and we lost a lot of children because of those scenarios. These stories, maybe because of the age I was or maybe because of the horrifying way the news covered the stories, made a huge impression on me. As I see my teenage cousins join Facebook, as I see more and more parents with young children on Facebook, I can’t help but hear alarms going off in my head. That is the backdrop for my concern.
Things to monitor
There are a few things I see online that really make me worry. Now, because I am open to talk about anything on this site, I am happy to have devil’s advocates. This is an important conversation to have! With that being said, here are things that concern me.
The use of Foursquare on Facebook: I’ve seen parents “check in” to their kids’ schools or their kids’ bus stops. With all of the other information available on Facebook – what the kids look like, what their names are – this seems like information that could put the children at risk if it got into the wrong hands.
The use of kids’ real names: I know that this will make some people roll their eyes at me, but here is where I am coming from. In the old days, if a person wanted to do harm to a child, they would have to lure the child into a sense of safety, either out in the open or via a chat room. Because Facebook status updates and photos can be shared beyond your ability to track, the wrong people can find out where your child lives, what his or her name is, and of course what your name is. This is the kind of information bad people crave. It is what enables them to tell children “Mommy told me to pick you up.” That information is being treated very lightly in the online world, especially on Facebook, and it concerns me a great deal.
Tagging Photos: This actually worries me not just for kids but for teachers and people in other professional positions too. I can give you a real-life example of where this can go wrong, in fact. A friend of mine innocently posted some pictures from college. One of them showed a friend of ours being goofy – it wasn’t even an obscene or icky picture. However, our friend had just become a minister and asked to be untagged from the photo because having it front and center on a new minister’s page didn’t make a lot of sense. Teachers have been fired, believe it or not, because there were pictures of them drinking on Facebook. We need to be very careful and very respectful not only for ourselves but for those around us, too.
Worrisome status updates: There have been a lot of cases lately where people have essentially sent out cries for help via Facebook. Now many would argue that this in and of itself is a bad idea, but I tend to play it more safe than sorry. If someone seems really down, I ask them if they’re okay or try to cheer them up. I invite them to talk to me offline if they want. It might seem silly, but I’d rather irritate someone mildly rather than let a person suffer thinking no one cares. One person can make a difference.
It Takes A Village
I think the most important thing we can do for kids and for each other on Facebook or any online platform is to watch out for each other. If you see a photo pop up that concerns you, let the people involved know. If you see that someone is getting bullied or harassed, try to step into the situation without endangering yourself.
In addition to this simple stuff and just being careful about what you put on Facebook, Deb Morello helped me gather many different resources last year for our Online Safe House effort that can help fight online bullying and that can help assist those struggling with thoughts of suicide.
Now, like I said, I know that some of these things may seem crazy or too alarmist in nature. I am definitely presenting worst-case scenarios here. But if you see things different, or if you have other questions or concerns, let’s talk about it. I’ll do my best to get you the answers you need!
Image by Gabriella Fabbri. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/duchesssa