Thursday, November 22, 2012

Teens and Their Online World

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 If you live in the GTA, you have no doubt heard about the teenagers in Brampton who have gotten into trouble over an incident of "trash-tweeting" three of their teachers. Nine teens were involved, and seven have received various punishments, from the initial day away from school while the incident was investigated plus apology letters, to 7-day suspensions. The specific content of the tweets has not been disclosed, but the school board spokesperson has indicated they included sexual and violent references. Police have determined no charges are warranted.

News outlets have also been making much of the fact that this occurred during Ontario's Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week, and the school board has painted this as cyber-bullying . I'm reluctant to term a single incident of some teenagers mouthing off about their teachers as bullying. Rude. Inappropriate. Disrespectful. Wrong. But bullying? I think bullying is sustained, persistent activity, not a single point in time. I don't like to see the word bullying bandied around so loosely, as I believe it diminishes the magnitude of that problem.

Regardless, the proper definition of bullying isn't the issue that's got me writing now. What has really struck me about this incident is the way these kids were behaving online. And how their classmates reacted to their punishments. You can see the newscast and interviews that got me concerned on the City News website. One of these girls actually seems to be comparing putting something out there on Twitter with writing in a diary. (Am I hearing that wrong?) Another speaks of it just being the way their generation communicates.

Really? Private conversations broadcast publicly to the world is the new normal? Well, I guess in many ways that is indeed the new normal. But this story, and the reactions to it, makes it pretty clear that the teens, in this school at least, do not understand the Internet and how their actions and words online today can affect them in the future.

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A survey of American teens, undertaken by the Pew Internet Project in 2011, indicated that 95% of teens aged 12-17 are online, and 80% are active on social media of one form or another. 27% of this online group create and upload videos. In this 2011 study, most of the social media users had a Facebook profile (93%), while 12% of the group was on Twitter.

Some additional stats from this study:

88% of social media-using teens have witnessed other people be mean or cruel on social network sites.
15% of social media-using teens say they have been the target of online meanness.
19% of teens have been bullied in the past 12 months in some form – either in person, online, by text, or by phone.
Roughly one in three online teens (30%) reports sharing one of their passwords with a friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend.
55% of online teens say they have decided not to post something online because they were concerned it might reflect badly on them in the future.
62% of teens who have a social media profile say the profile they use most often is set to be private so that only their friends can see the content they post.
Few teens (2%) say they have sent sexually suggestive images or videos, but 1 in 6 say they have received them.

So, there are a number of possible disconnects there - way more meanness being seen than the percentage saying they've been on the receiving end; way more receiving sexual content than admit to sending it. I am encouraged by the 55% reporting that they had sober second thoughts about posting something, due to a concern for how it might later look. But what about the other 45%? Have they posted anything questionable?

The reality is that the Internet is forever. Your photos and words and videos are all cached somewhere. You can later delete something from your Facebook wall, your Twitter feed, or your YouTube channel. But someone has likely already downloaded it or taken a screenshot, especially if it was particularly lurid or juicy. And Google may very well have a cached copy in their archives.

And it is public too. You can do a lot to safeguard your privacy on Facebook, but it's not foolproof. And Twitter is a public stream (unless you have locked down your profile, which is pretty uncommon). So this conversation the Brampton teens had the other night, they may have felt they were just venting amongst themselves. But the world could see. It wasn't a private conversation held in the coffee shop or someone's rec room. It was online, recorded for posterity and open to view. This is nothing like a diary.

The pictures you put up on Facebook of that crazy party Friday night. They may come back to haunt you when a future college admissions office or prospective employer looks you up online. Or that distant cousin you friended, or your ex, or the boy you turned down, or anyone you let into your "secure" online world could keep those images and use them against you.

My concern for these kids, based on what I heard on the newscast, is that they don't seem to understand either the permanency or the public nature of the Internet. We talk to our Teen quite a bit about this. He is mostly a texter and a consumer of YouTube videos, but he does have a Facebook profile, and he is online. It is really important that he understand how his actions there can affect him, so he can make good choices. I know when I was a teenager I felt I was invincible and untouchable. And certainly I knew better than my parents about just about everything. I truly doubt any of that is different with teenagers today. But, as parents, we still have to try to talk to them and educate them about life in the online world (among so many other things). Which means we have to educate ourselves too.

What are your thoughts?

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