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Parents, teens at online loggerheads

Kicking children off of Facebook and other social networking sites will make them want to be there more
Monday, December 22, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CST

What’s the scarier prospect? A.) the Internet B.) an overzealous parent. It depends on whom you ask, but age is going to carry a lot of weight in determining the answer regardless of who the interviewee is.

Kimberly Elliott, a mom who writes under the name of Kimberly Cheryl on a blog she devotes to promoting the safety of children (amongst other things), would likely choose answer A.

In a recent post, she explained that her teenage daughter believes Facebook is completely safe; Elliott, to reach for record-breaking understatement, disagrees. In an attempt to prove to her daughter that the Internet is extremely dangerous, Elliott created a fake profile of a teenage girl and quickly gained access to her daughter’s peers by requesting to be their friends on Facebook (though she forbids her daughter to use the network).

Her “experiment” was meant to be a lesson in how quickly personal information becomes accessible online to anyone who wants it. Elliott’s corollary was how dangerous, in a world that is unfortunately home to stalkers and identity thieves, that potentially makes such sites. The whole thing was the result of a bet the two made about how many people would approve someone as their friend (therefore giving them access to their information) without really knowing the person.

According to her post, it took Elliott less than 24 hours to gain 300 friends by sending them requests through Facebook. As she describes it, “Easy as anything, I can now find your child.  I know their school and sports schedules. I know who is dating whom. ... I have their homecoming pictures and videos with friends goofing off.  I can share this with any and everyone.”

Elliott does, in her own reactionary way, make a legitimate point: The Internet can be a dangerous place, and her daughter’s age group is the least likely to consider how or why. This may not, however, excuse how crazy she sounds when she details her mad prowls through teenagers’ online profiles that she made after fabricating a 16-year-old female with a photo she found online.

Despite the results of the Facebook foray and being "drilled day in and out with a long list of important safety and privacy lessons" (according to her mother's blog), I can imagine the daughter soundly choosing answer B., rolling her eyes at her mother’s paranoid antics and blatant uncoolness.

In her post, Elliott said that she felt the experiment was necessary because her daughter sneaks into anime chat rooms and because they have daily arguments about whether a 15-year-old should be allowed to use Facebook. This goes far beyond one woman and her anime-loving daughter, however. These two are victims of their age groups — not personal quirks — and how those groups have been introduced to technology. 

The current batch of teenagers grew up in an age when regular access to the Internet was taken for granted. A computer screen is just another friendly face in their household, to be unquestionably supplemented with whatever hip new online application comes on the market.

Their parents, alternatively, are part of a demographic that had to adopt the Internet mid-life, and they had to work through a difficult adoption process, wading through a thorough debate of pros and cons before they felt comfortable with the Internet and the boundaries it pushes. The suspicion inherent to that process has left them much more acute to the dangers that might be lurking behind that ingenuous screen.

As with most controversial issues, the two sides would be better off if they both moved toward the middle ground. Elliott is being overly protective and unreasonable (keeping in mind contemporary community standards) when she tries to entirely ban her daughter from social networking. Her daughter is being naïve if she thinks there is nothing potentially dangerous about throwing around your photo and personal information online.

Facebook and friends aren't going anywhere, but people do need to make an effort to use them safely. Actually screening the people you add as friends or make online connections to is a good start. Making sure your profile is not available through search engines is another smart step. But forbidding a teenager from using Facebook will only make the site seem more alluring and the real, potential dangers further removed.

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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