By Peter Jon Mitchell, Research Analyst, Institute of Marriage and Family Canada
“In many cases, parents have abdicated Their responsibility, unaware of what is happening online today.” National Post May 2.
Recently several eighth graders in the Toronto area made the news because they were caught passing notes. Not the usual folded scraps of paper, but the 2007 version – they posted lewd notes about teachers on the social networking website Facebook.com. 
Kids social networking Sites like Facebook and Myspace are exploding in popularity. These sites allow users to create a profile that includes personal information, notes and photos as a way of keeping in touch with friends or meeting new acquaintances. The rising use of social networking sites, instant messaging, cell phones and other technologies have given students creative new ways to express themselves. On the downside, this has meant new forums for taunting and bullying other students and telling tall tales about teachers.
The increased attention on cyber-bullying and internet teacher-bashing has lured Ontario Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne to consider adding these activities to the list of outlawed behaviours under the Safe Schools Act.  South of the border, several school districts in New York State have announced the end of school-issued laptop programs where students were caught downloading pornography, hacking into local businesses and sharing answers on tests instead of developing their computer skills. 
While much of the water cooler talk has bubbled around the role of the school in curbing cyber-hijinxing, the deeper issue is really about teens who have been handed the technological gadgetry without any guidance in acceptable social behaviour. Falsely assuming anything typed behind the safe bastion of a bedroom door is private, teens are posting treaties that bully others and promote rumours of lewd sexual misconduct by teachers.
Teens are both burgeoning free-thinking citizens with their own thoughts and opinions and yet they require guidance in understanding appropriate ways to interact socially. In many cases, parents have abdicated this responsibility, unaware of what is happening online today.
Today’s teens have never known life without the internet. Life happens online, and the internet has shaped how they communicate and function. A study released last month by the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests that 55% of online teens have profiles on sites like Facebook and Myspace.
Recognizing the inherent risks of posting personal information, these sites provide several measures of security that empower users to limit who sees their profile. The Pew report suggests that 66% of teens with profiles use these security measures.  Yet teens may be confusing limited access with privacy. Many teens fail to realize that posting libelous attacks on others is not only rude, but can have consequences offline.
Wise internet use does not mean simply camouflaging personal identities. Parents should be concerned about the content and the volume of data and images shared online. Canadian educational psychologist Jennifer Shapka discovered that teens send and receive an average of 40 instant messages a day.  A study from the Kaiser Family Institute in the United States found many teens are techno-multitaskers living in a continuous stream of digital flow. One teen responding to a survey on technology use reported, I multitask every single second I am online. At this very moment, I am watching TV, checking my email every two minutes, reading a newsgroup about who shot JFK, burning some music to a CD and writing this message.  Not all teens engage to this degree of media saturation, but the digital environment of instant messaging, e-mail, chatrooms and cell phones leave little time for contemplation on the value of the data or its potential impact.
Are parents offline?
New York Times columnist Michelle Slatalla recently lamented, “It’s parents who can’t keep up. This is a generation gap I may never bridge, having grown up in a time when typewriters roamed the earth and grazed alongside rotary dials.” Arni Stinnissen of the Ontario Provincial Police took a more serious tone when he recently told a reporter, “The piece that is missing in all this is the parents. They haven’t had the talk.”  The talk, concerns the potential dangers of internet use.
Teens can teach A great way of understanding the social networking sites and other popular sites among youth is to explore them with teens. There are a number of useful resources available for parents about internet safety.  The risks associated with teens and the internet are greatly reduced in homes with established guidelines and rules.  The rude behaviour making recent headlines is a symptom of a larger underlying problem. As schools employ curriculum focused on empathy and compassion, educational psychologist Scott Wooding fears the role of the family in conveying social values has diminished over the last generation. He suggests that as societal values have shifted, the pursuit of affluence and professional success are edging out valuable family time.  But perhaps families are passing on social values to the kids. Could it be that the years of watching mom and dad flip the bird from the safety of the family SUV has taught junior that its okay to act like a jerk on the information super hi-way?
Wooding suggests that families re-evaluate their lifestyles and re-organize their priorities. In short, Wooding is advocating for a family lifestyle overhaul. Its drastic, but so is legislating schools to police the internet after hours. In the end, its parents that need to face-up to the issue.
- ^El Akkad, O. and K. McArther (2007, May 1) The hazards of Facebooks social experiment. Globe and Mail. P.A1.
- ^Schools get help to crack down on cyber-bullies (2007, April 18) Stratford Beacon-Herald. P.1.
- ^Hu, W. (2007, May 4) Seeing no progress, some schools drop laptops. New York Times. P.1
- ^Lenhart, A. and M. Madden (2007, April 18) Social networks: How teens manage their online identities and personal information in the age of Myspace. Washington: Pew Internet and American Life Project. P. ii,iii. Retrieved April 30th from http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Teens_Privacy_SNS_Report_Final.pdf
- ^Schmidt, S. (2006, November 15) Teens online up to 8 hours a day: study: researcher very concerned about excessive users. National Post. P.A19.
- ^Quote collected by Lenhart, Rainie and Lewis as reprinted in Foehr, U. (2006, December)Media multitasking among American youth: prevalence, predictors and pairings. Menlo Park: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. P.2. Retrieved April 30th from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/7592.pdf
- ^Slatalla, M. (2007, May 3) My daughter, the burger-flipping penguin. New York Times. P.6
- ^Agrell, S. (2007, May 1) The new sex talk. Globe and Mail. P.L2.
- ^See Rob Nickels internet safety tips for parents at http://www.cyber-safety.com/parents.html
- ^Agrell, The new sex talk. P.L2
- ^Wooding, S. (2005) The parenting crisis. Markham: Fitzhenry and Whiteside. P.15ff.
This article is contributed to canadianchristianity.com by The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC). IMFC conducts, compiles and presents research on marriage and family. They are part of Focus on the Family Canada and are based in Ottawa. http://www.imfcanada.org.