Most educators working with middle and high school students are aware of the explosive involvement of youth on social networking sites. Few are prepared to deal with it. Internet safety expert Nancy Willard discusses the risks and benefits of such sites and offers schools a comprehensive approach to addressing student Internet access. Included: Advice for parents and teachers; online guidelines for students.

Legitimate concerns do exist about youth involvement on these sites, however. Those concerns are grounded in three basic factors:

1) The sites are attracting many teens, some of whom are not making good choices.

2) Many parents are not paying attention to what their children are posting on the sites.

3) Sexual predators and likely other dangerous strangers are attracted to places where teens are not making good choices and adults are not paying attention.

Some teens are engaging in unsafe or irresponsible activities that include:

  • Unsafe disclosure of personal information — providing potentially dangerous or damaging personal information. Many teens appear to have no understanding that what they post in those communities is public, potentially permanent, and accessible by anyone in the world.
  • Addiction — spending an excessive amount of time online, resulting in lack of healthy engagement in major areas of life.
  • Risky sexual behavior — becoming seduced by a sexual predator or child pornographer, posting sexually suggestive material or self-producing child pornography, or making connections with other teens for sexual “hook-ups.”
  • Cyberbullying — being cruel to others by sending or posting harmful material online or through a cell phone, or by engaging in other cruel actions.
  • Dangerous communities — at-risk youth making connections with other at-risk youth or adults to discuss and share information, which can result in a shared belief in the appropriateness of potentially very harmful activities.
  • Is it appropriate for students to be participating in commercial social networking sites while at school? Probably not. It is advisable that schools seek to limit all non-educational, entertainment use of the Internet — including social networking activities — through the district Internet system.
  • Can and should schools block access to the sites? Well, they can try.
  • When the Internet first came into schools, the primary concern was youth access to pornography. Filtering software was promoted as the tool to effectively deal with that concern. Current concerns deal more with what students are posting, as well as how and with whom they are communicating. Do a search on the terms “bypass Internet filter” and you will see how easy it is for youth to find information on ways to get around the school filter.
  • What schools should do
  • A clear policy with a strong focus on the educationally valuable use of the Internet — no “Internet recess.” The policy must be supported by curriculum and professional development, and a clear expectation for teachers that all student use of the Internet should be of high quality, well-planned instructional activities.
  • Student education about online safety and responsible use.
  • Effective technical monitoring.
  • Appropriate consequences. Schools and districts should consider a full review of Internet use management policies and practices. A needs assessment and evaluation of Internet use would provide helpful insight. Safe school personnel must be involved in that process.
  • A “just say no” or “just say block” approach will not be effective in preventing youth involvement in online communities or in addressing concerns associated with them. Proactive strategies to help students gain the knowledge, skills, and motivation to make safe and responsible choices and continued adult involvement are necessary.

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