Internet Rites of Passage?
By Jeremy Perkins
Protecting people from internet pitfalls and dangers is a tricky business, and teaching safe internet practice is not always a clear or simple endeavor. Often it seems there are more questions than answers. When does children's protection begin to infringe on their rights to express themselves freely? When is it alright to unplug the computer because it's become too addictive? What is ok and not ok on the web, and does one police suspicious internet activity? Will my MySpace account really affect my employment/college future? Although there are no easy answers to this dense and complex issue, this article attempts to explore some of the real and existent dangers and pitfalls of internet misuse.
But first thing's first. What is a social networking site, and how does one recognize it? In researching a definition I have found some common themes that allow these sites to be recognized with some level of speed and comprehension. Generally, a social networking site (SNS) allows individuals to (1) create a public or semi-public profile (personae) within a bounded system, (2) list other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and use their list of connections and those made by others within the system. Some common sites that fit this profile are MySpace, Facebook, Cyworld, and Bebo, to name some of the more recognizable.
The first rule of thumb when approaching and responsibly managing an SNS account, and what I tell students in internet-use classes, is to realize that it is simply an extension of normal oral communication using technology. Thus, using emails, blogs, post pages, and personal web sites to read and display personal information should be no different than talking at a café over coffee or meeting on the playground. In other words, if the content is not something one would be comfortable saying out loud (at the embarrassing or incriminating prospect of being overheard) than don't advertise the sentiment on the web. If one has a private Polaroid not to be shown to the average person, then don't post it on the web for the world to see. Understand that communicating on the web is not like having a private phone conversation; your identity, personal information, and even place of residence can easily be ferreted out by a less-that-virtuous on-line predator - like someone listening into to a conversation assumed to be private.
The important thing here is to premise that the idea of social networking itself is not bad; in fact, the idea of the modern social networking web site grew from sites like Ryze.com, which was launched in 2001 to help people leverage their business networks. Ryze's founder evidently first introduced the site to his friends-primarily members of the San Francisco business and technology community, including the entrepreneurs and investors behind many future SNS sites (A. Scott, personal communication, June 14, 2007).
Ryze soon led to Tribe.net, LinkedIn, and Friendster but (most importantly and to the point) all users and owners involved remained close both personally and professionally (Chafkin, 2007, p. 1). The idea over all was for conversation to remain easy and intimate without face-to-face contact. This intimacy now no longer exists, and SNS sites today are infinitely larger and more intimidating than their more genial ancestors.
Nevertheless, the situation is not entirely unmanageable. Knowledge is the key, and there are simple facts one should become familiar with to better understand and explain the dangers and pitfalls of today's SNS sites. MySpace, for example, has a reported (according to MSNBC online) 50 million plus members, and is one of the fastest growing web sites in the country. At this time, it does not require any sort of meaningful identity verification to become registered, and if there is an age restriction, it is on the honor system as MySpace, along with most of its ilk, has yet to implement any sort of meaningful age verification process.
Also according to MSNBC online, MySpace says that it does not pre-screen the content of its more than 50-million members, but encourages all of them to exercise caution. Also, because these sites have millions of members, they rely mainly on self-policing to keep their sites "relatively" free of illegal postings. But even at that, objectionable material can easily be found, and it may take some time before site administrators clean it up even if they know about it.
While MySpace's attention to protecting its members is touching (really), more stringent age and credentials verification processes would without a doubt cut down on objectionable materials and member fraud. Tech-challenged parents are particularly at risk for having some sort of internet misuse happening within the household. The web can easily become an enticing world where the children (or anyone for that matter) next door can play any role they want, not realizing that billions of people with internet access, including sexual predators, may be watching, or even playing an active role in on-line conversations and fantasies.
When Dateline NBC surfed (just looking at main pages and not being on a member's "friends" list) MySpace, it found scenes of binge drinking, apparent drug use, teenagers posing in their underwear, and other members simulating sex and in some cases even having it. It also found less provocative pages, but even more concerning is that on most pages teens listed not only their names and addresses but even cell phone numbers and after school schedules. If this scares you, it should.
Information made public on the internet is viewable by any number of billions of web surfers, and it never ever goes away. In fact, it can stay up there until the SNS decides to take it down, and photos and statements can be copied and pasted all over the web until they become scattered and impossible to track.
But there is hope, and there is help. One form of help comes from Parry Aftab, an internet lawyer; she has put up a site called wiredsafety.org, where users can become members or simply look around for some helpful tips - and there are many. Aftab says, "even kids who don't list their names and addresses can provide enough personal information- such as the kinds of bands and boys they love- for a pedophile to use to con their way into their lives." Aftab lists these tips, among others, for teens and parents to follow:
- Blur your photos so they can't be used elsewhere on the web to identify you
- What you post stays online FOREVER!!!
- That cute 14 year old boy may not actually be a cute 14 year old boy
- Unless you are prepared to attach your MySpace to a college/job/internship/scholarship/sports team application…don't post it publicly!!!
Although many like Aftab prefer communication and education, there is software out there intended to help. One such software is SpyBuddy - Powerful PC Monitoring and Surveillance. Although clearly well-intentioned, this program, as the name implies, may be a little too cloak-and-dagger for most. Aftab says that it is not wrong to ask to see children's MySpace accounts (and not just the "parent-compliant" ones - all of them) repeatedly and at random intervals, or to warn them and show them of the extreme risks of posting questionable materials in a public forum.
And while it may be tempting for parents and educators to sweep this issue under the rug, reminiscing about the days of their childhood antics, the difference now is that children often record those antics on digital media and post them for the world to see. Capturing stupidity for posterity, despite the apparent appeal, also may come with some very real drawbacks.
An issue in the New York Times on-line describes a promising young University of Illinois candidate who applied for an internship at a small consulting company in Chicago. The candidate looked pretty impressive until the company's president stumbled across his MySpace page, which boasted of drug use, sex, and violence. He was immediately turned down for the job.
But not all companies are checking those sites, at least not yet. In an article in the Morning Sentinel on-line, it seems more likely that the old-school brick and mortar businesses like TD Banknorth will continue to stand by the standard resumes and letters of recommendation. The newer, tech-savvy guys, however, have quickly added "varied web searches to their HR toolbox."
According to the same article, the internet start-up JobsInTheUs.com has Googled every candidate for the past year and has just recently folded MySpace and Facebook checks into its standard background check of candidates. Matt Hoffner, president, had this (among other things) to say about some applicant posts: "The fundamental issue is they're putting it up there as a badge of honor as to what a great partier they are without thinking of the long-term employment implications." Further, Bob Martin, president of a Portland, Maine business, said, "MySpace is, in a lot of ways, a reflection of somebody's
Colleges and universities are concerned about character as well, as, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Reed College in Oregon rejected a student because of his on-line posts on a popular SNS. He, evidently, wrote harsh comments about college officials on his blog, which the Dean of Admissions later viewed.
That being said, only a handful of colleges report checking on an applicant's SNS posts, and only do so on extreme circumstance. According to an article in the Campanile, Palo Alto's high school newspaper, Diane Williams of Stanford's admissions office said, "[SNS sites] are relatively new concepts to college admissions boards, and because of that there is no specific policy as of yet."
Echoing, no doubt, the sentiments of others colleges and universities, she further says, "Taking into consideration that we receive over 22,000 applications [per year], it is not our practice nor does time allow us to search either of these sites."
Harvard, MIT, the California Institute of Technology, and many other places of higher education across the country appear to handle the issue in a similar fashion, all claiming that admissions applicants have never been decided based on blog or SNS page.
This being said, as awareness begins to grow, getting into higher education becomes more competitive, and new policies are set it may indeed be taking a risk by posting questionable content on one's SNS. The only way to be sure that it will not negatively affect future endeavors is not to post it at all.
Again, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling on-line (NACAC.com), "most colleges are not surfing the web for your profile, however, there have been incidences where schools have acted based on information they have gotten from these types of sites. One example claims a high school freshman was suspended from a Maryland school because of on-line photos. Another describes police busting an under-aged drinking party at George Washington University after invitations were found on-line.
But the question of public or private site information is rarely clean cut, and schools struggle to balance protecting children while not infringing on their rights. According to the same article, many high schools have banned the use of SNS sites on campus, and some private schools have even banned students from having accounts at all. What complicates matters is that despite school's defenses, self-proclaimed student hackers as well as novice users may easily circumvent the most well-intentioned of network administrators by using a proxy server to access the outside internet.
There are thousands of proxy servers on-line, and although many schools use internal firewalls to block them from being accessed by students, the task is an endless battle. These proxy servers act as a type of portal to the outside, unrestricted internet, while offering virtually untraceable browsing. Schools like mine implement suspensions to deter the use of proxies, but even this sometimes is not enough to prevent a student from trying. Teachers, also, have been asked to add new skills to their classroom knowledge-base by monitoring students in labs and on classroom computers. But more education and knowledge is needed, as is evident by the following response.
Aubrey Fait, a freshman at Saint-Mary-of-the Woods College (IN), echoes what is probably the general student sentiment when asked how she felt about people viewing her FaceBook account: "Well, I would be a little angry because there are things in my profile that I don't want them to see," said Aubrey Fait. "There is some information that I want to keep private between me and my friends, so I would prefer if my parents and college faculty not look at my Facebook profile." (This interview was also done by NACAC.com.) Aubry may think her profile is private, but she also may let in "Lisa" who is not really "Lisa." Lisa, in turn lets in someone else, or leaks information she has gleaned all over the net. And before Aubrey knows it, her private information is no longer so private.
Both students and parents need to understand that what goes on the web is accessible to the world and never goes away. It is a bit like broadcasting what you say on a billboard - you may assume not every one can see it, but at the right place in the right time everybody can. Whether the content is good or bad when it's up, it's up, and it's up for good…with ever-growing societal consequences.