Why teens risk online exposure, and how parents can help
Daily Dose - News in News2 Topeka Kansas, January 12, 2007
Kevin smokes pot and drinks alcohol on a monthly basis. Damisha, who never has kissed more than one person in the same day, thinks Jazmyne flirts more than anyone she knows. Laci works at a day care and has no idea what she wants to do with her life, but she would like to get engaged before the year ends.
Kevin, Damisha and Laci, who identify themselves as teenagers living in Topeka, posted this information to their Myspace Web pages.
And there are many others who have much more to say. As teens look online to develop social connections, they often divulge too much information, putting themselves at risk with parents, employers, police and predators.
“It’s the future of the Net,” said Parry Aftab, a privacy lawyer and executive director of wiredsafety.org, an online resource for teaching teens and parents the dos and don’ts of social networking.
Because it’s the future, she said, we have a responsibility to embrace the technology and use it wisely — even if you’re not comfortable with it.
Last month, local parents expressed outrage following a story in the Topeka West student newspaper that included blurred images posted to Myspace. The photos showed teens drinking.
Ron Harbaugh, spokesman for Topeka Unified School District 501, said 501 schools provide students with information about the dangers of social networking. Sites like Myspace, he said, are blocked on school computers.
But what students do at home is up to them, he said.
“They’re aware of the dangers, especially after recent incidents, but that’s their decision,” Harbaugh said.
That’s the wrong approach, according to Aftab. Teens are told about risks by parents, friends, teachers and media, but they aren’t listening, she said.
“They can tell you the words, but they don’t believe it,” Aftab said. “They think it can be risky, but only for stupid kids. They think it can be a problem, but only for kids who don’t get it. Not them. It doesn’t apply to them.”
Aftab — who says she talks to thousands of teens and parents on a monthly basis — described an exercise in which she asks students to raise their hands if they feel safe online. Invariably, they all raise their hands. Then she asks them to raise their hands if they think their friends are safe online. No students raise their hands.
This indicates that teens understand that bad things can happen. They just aren’t realistic about their own vulnerability, she said.
To get through to teens, Aftab uses several tactics.
First, she tells them to have what she calls “a wired buddy,” someone you trust to talk to about the content you’re putting online. Friends are more protective than we are of ourselves, Aftab said.
She also suggests teens protect their Web pages with passwords. If they feel the need to give out an e-mail address, they should set up a secondary one through a service like Hotmail.
Most important, she said, is to tell kids to think before they click.
“Don’t post anything that you think might embarrass you in a few years,” Aftab said. “Don’t post when you’re out at a slumber party and you’re goofing around. Don’t post when you’re at a frat party and you’re drunk. What you put online stays on forever.”
In addition to getting through to teens, though, Aftab said someone needs to get through to parents. Instead of being outraged, they should make sure their kids “know how to use the technology and are responsible when they do it,” she said.
Aftab compared online social networking to teaching kids about sex and drugs. Instead of telling them not to have sex before they’re married or not to drink before they’re 21, she said, it’s more effective to tell teach them to have safe sex and not to drink and drive.
Which is why Aftab said the worst thing a parent can do is to bar a son or daughter from going to Myspace or a similar site at all. She instead asks parents to “take a breath” and “remember what it was like being 15.”
And remember that kids lie. If your daughter writes that she was drunk at a party on Saturday night, there’s a chance she was really at home in bed.
“They want to sound cooler than they are in real life,” Aftab said.