Social Media Full Disclosure – Be “Friends” with your Kids!

My FaceBook Friends

Image by Josh Russell via Flickr

Today, I will cover our third rule for working with your kids to protect and monitor them online, without them feeling like you’re watching over their shoulder all the time.  The rule we will cover today is:

You will accept all “friend” or “follow” requests from us on your social media accounts.

I know what you are thinking…. you’re supposed to be a guiding element and an influence in your kids’ lives, not a friend!  You are there to set boundaries and rules, enforce discipline, teach your children the difference between right and wrong, and so on.  This very important rule actually allows you to do all of these things.

What Does Being Friends Mean?

For those that are relatively unfamiliar with social media outlets such as Facebook or Twitter, the concept of being “friends” with your kids might not be familiar.  Simply put, when you “friend” your children on one of these systems, it allows you to see content and conversations that they are posting on that site.

For example, if you are friends with your kids on Facebook, all you have to do is log in to your Facebook account and view your news feed.  You will then be able to see all of the updates, pictures, and comments they’re making and sharing with other accounts they have “friended.”

Almost all social media sites have this feature.  Some sites call it a “follow” or “watch” function, but they all do basically the same thing.  Updates and content posted by the people you are following are available for you to view and consume.

Of course, this means you’ll need an account on every social media site your kids use.  This is actually a good thing; being familiar with the sites your children use (including possible security and privacy issues) is a great line of defense in helping to protect them!

Should I Chatter with my Kids on Facebook Now That We’re Friends?

This is a loaded question.  The short answer is: “It depends.”

Some kids will prefer that you do not comment on their posts or status updates, while other kids may not care one way or the other.  For instance, older teens may prefer more separation between their home lives and their other, public relationships.

NO kids want you posting stuff that might embarrass them.  Keep in mind that any of the following things might be things they are not sharing with their friends:

  1. Activities they’re involved in outside of school.
  2. Pet names you call your children (for instance, my wife calls our 17yo daughter “Bunny”… she is NOT supposed to post that!)
  3. Adorable pictures of your 2 year-old in the bathtub, your 8 year-old in pajamas, or their “chubby” phase at any age!  Yes, I know you love those photos.  They’re also likely to embarrass the heck out of your kids when everyone sees them.
  4. Affectionate language from you directed at your kids.  Some may not mind this, but others will be embarrassed by displays of affection online.  A good rule of thumb for this one is:  If they are easily embarrassed by hugs and kisses from you in front of their friends in person, they’re likely to react the same way to similar displays online.

I should state here that open communication is key.  While you are setting up ground rules for how your children will behave online, let them help set up the ground rules for how you will engage with them online.  Ask them to discuss their preferences, compromise where possible, and then respect those boundaries.  This gives them some control over the situation, without risking their safety.  Hopefully, this mutually respectful attitude makes them less likely to break your agreement and decreases the chance that your kids will try to hide online activity from you.

What if I Don’t Know What Social Media Sites my Kids are Using?

This is a common follow-up question.  If you are concerned that your children have started online accounts that you don’t know about, an audit of their online footprint is in order.  I have covered this in a previous blog post about the first rule of social media full disclosure.  Read through it and send us an email if you have any questions!

I’m Following my Kids, but I Can’t See Their Updates.  What’s Wrong?

In some cases, your kids might know enough about the advanced privacy features to be able to hide their updates from you.  For example, Facebook allows a user to put your friends into “groups” and you can set specific security for those groups.  So, in this case, it’s possible your kids did the following:

  1. After they accepted your friend request, they put you into the “Parents” group in their profile.
  2. They then changed their privacy settings so that the “Parents” group cannot see any updates, pictures, or comments.

If you know your children are active on Facebook or other social media sites, and you don’t see their updates, there is a good chance they’ve blocked you.   There is a logical order of operations to handle this:

  1. Log-in to their account yourself to see all of their updates.  You should have their log-in information if you followed the advice in my post about managing your child’s online accounts.
  2. Check if they have assigned your account to any limited access groups in their privacy settings.  You can find a great help page about Facebook Friend Lists on Facebook’s help site.  There is also a great Privacy Help Page as well, if you are generally unfamiliar with Facebook privacy.
  3. If your children have blocked you in any way, be prepared to have a conversation with them about your role in protecting them online.
  4. Almost all social media sites have some sort of privacy settings that users can leverage to hide (or reveal) information to specific people.  It might be a good time to make sure you understand those privacy settings in detail, for every social media site your kids visit!
  5. There are parental control tools that monitor online activities, including reporting on new friends that your kids collect on Facebook and other social media sites.  Check out our resources page for a Round Up of Parental Control Tools!

In my next “social media full disclosure” post, I will talk about how to help your children set up their privacy settings on several popular social media sites, and how to deal with online “stranger danger.”

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Mom’s Old Saying is Reversed on the Internet!

No rain emoticon

Image by amboo who? via Flickr

I thought I’d depart from our usual postings a little bit on a topic that I’ve been thinking about for some time.

I’ve been researching social media monitoring tools, and their ability to track what these tools call “sentiment,” which is whether a post or comment is positive, negative, or neutral.  These tools basically scrub the text of a posting looking for keywords that might define the posting as positive or negative.  In general, these types of tools do a pretty good job, and are around 70-80% accurate.  This social media sentiment article is a good write-up on sentiment and sentiment accuracy using text-scrubbing tools.

After researching these tools quite a bit, I had a bit of an enlightened moment that brought me back to my own childhood.

I argued with my mother fairly often, despite the fact that she was very good to me.  I would often use sarcasm in these arguments as a means of causing pain.  Sarcasm is easy to note when you are face to face.  I have since apologized to my mother numerous times (especially now that I have my own teenager) about how I would act during those arguments.   Her and I are still very close, as she raised me to love my family no matter what.  Sorry again mom.  I know I was a tough kid to handle.

Eventually, after an argument was over, my mom would pull an old saying out of her bag and use it.  She’d say:

“You know… it’s not what you say.  It’s how you say it.”

Given how often I argued with her, I got to hear this saying a lot.  It’s a very true statement;  body language, tone of voice, rolling of the eyes… all of these things contribute to how you express meaning in your language.

The “how you say it” part is particularly troublesome for these automated sentiment tools.  They have no way to track sarcasm, innuendo, or other creative wordplay.  Case in point:

I LOVE potatoes.  I could eat them every day.  If you serve me potatoes with every meal, I would be the happiest person alive.

My question to our readers:  Do I like potatoes?

On the Internet, mom’s old saying is turned on its head. It now becomes:

“On the Internet, it’s not how you say it… it’s what you say.”

There are many examples of this that happen to me every day.  When I read an email with someone expressing a strong opinion, I often think to myself “Now what did they mean by that?” If I had actually heard them say the same words out loud or been in the room with them, I would probably be able to tell exactly what they meant.

Why do People use Emoticons?

Emoticons have been around for a long time.  They help to convey “online body language” in otherwise nebulous text that could be taken in several ways.

Of course, there are a TON of emoticons out there that can help you convey meaning in your language.  Lots of different people use them, and being familiar with what they mean can help you “read between the lines.”   If you’re being sarcastic, you can use a “rolls eyes” emoticon.  If you’re jazzed about something, you can use an “excited” emoticon.  Most emoticons make a lot of sense if you tilt your head and take a good look.  Here is a partial list (taken from Wikipedia’s list of emoticons):

:) – a standard “smile” icon
;) – a “wink” smile
C.C – rolling eyes
:-/ – uneasiness or hesitancy
:( – sadness
<3 – love
:-O – surprise or shock

These types of emoticons go a long ways towards defining meaning in a new world where we cannot see body language.  They an interesting way to enhance the way we communicate online.

By the way…

I really do like potatoes a lot <3.  It’s by far my favorite food.  No sarcasm there. :)

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Dept of Ed Tells Schools They Must Be Cyber-Cops Patrolling for Cyberbullying Among Students

cyberbullying patrol

Image by eschipul via Flickr

On 26 Oct 2010, a “Dear Colleague” letter was sent from the US Dept of Education to all school administrators across the country. In the letter, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Russlynn Ali, made statements which appear to redefine the definition of legal harassment as well as the legal standard for when school officials can be held accountable for preventing it among their students.

“Harassment may take many forms, including verbal acts and name-calling; graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the Internet;… Harassment does not have to include intent to harm, be directed as a specfic target, or involve repeated incidents. … [it occurs] when the conduct is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent…,” Ali writes. And further: ”A school is responsible for addressing harassment incidents about which it knows or reasonably should have known.”

What’s new here? A lot:

  • First, that schools can be held accountable for cyberbully behavior which takes place off school grounds. Previously, schools were only accountable for acts of bullying which occur on school campuses.
  • Second, that schools can be held accountable not only when they have actual knowledge of cyberbully, bully, or harassment behaviors, but also when they reasonably should have known.
  • Third, that harassment is redefined to include acts which are “sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent.” Previously, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1999, that acts must be “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.”
  • Fourth, harassment – and by implication bullying and cyberbullying – “does not have to include intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents.”

The letter urges schools to consider bullying and cyberbullying incidents as acts of harassment, in particular when they involve race, color, national origin, sex, or disability. In short, policies which apply to bullying and cyberbullying incidents are not sufficient in these cases - and local school officials have little or no discretion in terms of their response, as viewed by the Dept of Ed.

Response from the National School Board Association

In a written response to this letter, the General Counsel of the National School Board Association has asked the Dept of Ed to clarify its “Dear Colleague” letter.

“Our fear is that, absent clarification, the department’s expansive reading of the law … will invite misguided litigation that needlessly drains precious school resources and creates adversarial school climates that distract schools from their educational missions,” NSBA General Counsel Francisco M. Negron Jr. wrote.

To date, clarification from this letter written in early Dec 2010, has not been provided.

Where Does This Lead? Already Over-Burdened Schools Make Poor Cyber-Cops

This broad reading of Civil Rights laws appears to require schools to perform as cyber-cops among their students. Schools can be sued when they should have known about harassment incidents – which can include negative statements not directed at specific individuals, including statements which were not intended to harm.

This standard appears to be too broad to be reasonably enforceable by most school administrators, who themselves are not likely to be as tech-savvy as their students. The letter also brings to the fore, many urgent and challenging questions, including:

  • What is the legal definition of cyberbullying?
  • Is cyberbullying subject to Civil Rights laws governing harassment at all times?
  • How broadly must school policies be written, in terms of the school’s responsibility to prevent cyberbullying?
  • Is a no-tolerance stance practical to enforce?
  • Who pays for the enforcement when it involves cyber-sleuthing and tech automation?
  • How much discretion should be allowed to local administrators?

At least in terms of this last question, the position of the NSBA is clearly in favor of trusting the judgement of local school officials over the courts.

“The professional judgement of educators is key to addressing the problem of bullying,” Negron writes.

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