How are schools preparing our kids for the world of social networking? Not so well from my experience.

Michael Hickins, Contributor

August 26, 2009

3 Min Read

How are schools preparing our kids for the world of social networking? Not so well from my experience.Maybe this is one of those things that people argue should be left to parents, like sex education, but the fact is that too many parents are closing their eyes and crossing their fingers that their kids don't get in trouble. Schools have always had a role in imparting survival skills to our kids -- teaching everything from home economics to shop, not to mention driver's ed and reproductive education. They should do the same with social networking, if only they have the expertise.

I have noticed that some schools are contracting with private non-profit groups to come in and talk to the kids, but their programs are aimed at the lowest common denominator -- meaning, rather than engage in a discussion that involves nuance and teaching kids about common sense, they simply teach them a list of don'ts; don't post pictures of yourself holding a beer can, don't give away your real identity, don't friend anyone you don't know in real life.

There's nothing wrong with that advice, other than it's about as effective as making abstinence the sum total of sex education. You know some kids aren't going to obey that rule, and yet by keeping them in the dark, you're effectively consigning them to the worst possible outcome.

The fact is that our kids are going to be engaged in all kinds of social activities, both physical and virtual, over which we'll have increasingly little control. And as they grow older, our ability to coerce them through parental authority alone diminishes unless we can provide a fairly cogent rationale for our rules.

There are a few things our kids can consider, some of which we've learned through our use of older forms of electronic media: tone doesn't come through in text messages, pokes and other nudges; adding jk or lol after a quip is a good way to make sure you don't unintentionally hurt someone's feelings; want to hurt someone's feelings? Think twice about doing it online. Words spoken face to face can sting, but they can also be forgotten if needs be. Wall postings will always be there to reopen old wounds; It's harder to judge someone you don't know online than in person. That's good in some ways, bad in others. But personal chemistry and intuition are part of our survival skill set, and those instruments are blinded online. Just because we seem to have a lot in common with someone online doesn't mean we really do; Never agree to meet someone you met online without bringing someone else along. Even if you met them through being the friend of a friend, remember that you don't necessarily know how your friend became friends with this person; Don't use the medium to become someone you're not, or to express a part of yourself that you keep hidden in real life. You may know that you're play-acting online, but strangers don't. People can and will judge you by your Facebook profile and other electronic traces you leave behind.

School is about to come back in session, but more than just a new school year, for a lot of kids, it's a chance to start over in a new school. The temptation (and advantage) is that they get a chance to reshape their images and make new impressions on new faces. The same opportunity exists online, and as a parent, I'm teaching my kids how to take care while remaining true to themselves. I hope our schools are also up to the task.

Please feel free to suggest other guidelines I should add to the list above.

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