Social Networking: Problems and Safeguards
So What’s the Problem with Kids and Social Networking?
According to one USA Today report by Janet Kornblum, unprecedented numbers of teens are using blogs to do what they once did through personal diaries, phone conversations and hangout sessions: cementing friendships with classmates, seeking new friends, venting, testing social limits, getting support and getting all emo (“highly emotional” in blog-speak). 1 Kornblum writes that, “Blogs and social sites are so popular that many schools have banned them. Just last week a private school in New Jersey took it a step further, telling students to dismantle their personal Internet diaries or face suspension.” Why all the hoopla? It’s simple: kids are revealing to the rest of the world information that is inappropriate and too personal, especially information that can make it easy for a predator to identify, track, and lure the youngster. Teens and tweens (tweens are kids who are kind of in between being a grade schooler and a teenager) are regularly revealing everything from where they attend school to where they live, work, play, hang out, and study. Many also include photos of themselves and their friends taken in their house, or worse, in their rooms in full view of posters and other personal items – useful information about interests that can be used for evil motives.
Some mental health and psychology professionals wonder, “Are social networks being used by depressed kids to interact with others and isolating them even further from the real world? Has social networking become a poor substitute for professional counseling?” It may be that children who are in pain or in need are turning to technologies such as blogging, podcasting, and social networking to better cope. Therapists are beginning to realize this. The following e-mail was posted over a counseling related listserv from a professor and counselor who has learned to incorporate students’ Facebook pages into their treatment: 2
I started a practice late last spring that I intend to continue, as an experiment, this fall. When students are referred for an alcohol screening - both mandated and self referrals - I would check to see if the student had a Facebook.com page. If the student had a page, I would review it to get a sense of how the student sees him or herself, especially in regard to high-risk behaviors. True to what we learn from social norming data that have been published, most - the vast majority - of student pages I have reviewed have been in what I refer to as the, “PG or PG-13” rated range. There have been, however, a couple with comments, nicknames and/or photos attached that have suggested rather high-risk behavior practices.
Since anyone with a .edu e-mail address can open an account in the facebook.com, this might be a useful tool for those who do screenings. I have found the tool to be useful in exploring the apparent inconsistencies in a student’s self-reports on personal preferences and behavior and the student’s facebook.com page when I conduct an assessment. Perhaps it is my white beard and an obviously middle-aged if not grandfatherly appearance that lets me get away with this, but I find that feigning my best impersonation of Peter Faulk as Columbo, as I act befuddled, touching my forehead saying, “Help me understand something...I seem to be a bit confused here...but you just told me ‘X’ about your approach to socializing, yet when I looked at your facebook page, it seems to suggest something different. Help me sort out what’s what.” Obviously, there cannot be any condescension in one’s voice when employing this strategy and in true motivational interviewing style, one should never argue with a client, but it has been interesting to see how the facebook may become another tool that is useful in attempting to engage a student in a realistic conversation about personal choices related to drinking.
As an aside - and I have not done this as yet - it occurs to me that the facebook, or should I say, student entries about themselves IN the facebook, may also be useful when addressing issues related to self-esteem, self-respect, students concerns about how they are perceived, etc. By talking about how students refer to themselves in their entries, e.g., the language they use, the images they post, etc., we may be able to invite students to recognize that we all teach others how we should be treated by the way we present ourselves in public. This is sort of like what a career counselor might due when explaining that a student might want to consider changing his or her e-mail address on a resume from “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Just a thought to start some discussion at the start of another academic year.
Dr. Robert Chapman
Sometimes, simply getting stuff “off your chest” can help you feel better and lead to real improvement (this is called catharsis in counseling terms). This may especially be true if a child feels isolated and/or lonely and begins to see that his peers show signs of empathy or understanding about his situation. Oftentimes, however – especially when a child suffers from some mental disorder or serious psychological/social issues – it does not. Parents should keep in mind that some children may attempt to use online disclosures as a substitute for more appropriate and effective professional help. Also, similar to how Dr. Chapman uses Facebook to gather extra information about a student he works with in treatment, parents can use their children’s online postings as a focus of conversation with the intent to advance a connection, foster trust and provide timely guidance (as opposed to espionage and interrogation).
Another problem with social networks occurs when some kids post information online that is derogatory or mean-spirited. This is one very good reason why schools are legitimately concerned over potential liability for personal blogg-ing on school computers during recess and study halls. In some cases, children target school personnel such as teachers and administrators. At the very least, this is inappropriate. Worse, it could be a violation of school policy (most schools now have Acceptable Use Policies [AUP] when it comes to computer and Internet use). 3 Even worse, it could be criminal based on state or federal terroristic threat laws. Students could get expelled or criminally charged. Consider that two 10 th grade girls at one high school confessed to making an online death threat against other students. They say it was a joke. But they are now facing delinquency criminal charges. School district officials found out about the threats after other students read the posting. Some called a school hotline to report it. Others told the principal the next morning.
In seemingly more frequent cases, disparaging comments are exchanged among peers or other students. This can happen when a child relays his or her opinion and another child does not agree and a “flame war” ensues. A flame war is the deliberate exchange of insults between two or more people, usually over an electronic medium such as listserv, chatroom, instant messenger, blog or website. The message itself is called a “flame” and the author is said to be “flaming.”
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