Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Anonymity: The Power and Peril

“There is a powerful tension in our relationship to technology. We are excited by egalitarianism and anonymity, but we constantly fight for our identity.” ~David Owens (American painter/artist)

The ability to be anonymous on the web is one of the things that concerns us as parents the most. We all know by now that people (especially teenagers) are willing to say things online, hiding behind an anonymous user id, that they would not say to a person's face. This is an inherent risk in an environment where anonymity is easy. Some websites, in response to the "trolls" that ruin an otherwise pleasant online experience, have either shut down their commenting features altogether, or ask that people register with their actual names so commenting cannot be anonymous (of course there are ways around this, but it's a start).

Two recent articles in the New York Times address this very topic. The first, Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt, written by a product design manager at Facebook, advocates for accountability, something we discuss with our students every day. "Instead of waiting around for human nature to change, let’s start to rein in bad behavior by promoting accountability. Content providers, stop allowing anonymous comments. Moderate your comments and forums. Look into using comment services to improve the quality of engagement on your site. Ask your users to report trolls and call them out for polluting the conversation." Absolutely!

In the educational technology realm, there is considerable talk about what is appropriate for our students, when we should introduce certain concepts, how we promote safety online, how much freedom we give our kids, how we prepare them for the world in which they are growing up, etc. Safety is always a major concern, and we are careful to guard the identities of young students. There is a difference, however, between protection of privacy and anonymity. "Digital Citizenship," or being a respectful and productive contributor to the digital world, is a skill we teach as soon as a child touches a computer. Can 9-year-olds understand the difference between appropriate comments and hurtful, inflammatory ones? Yes. Does an 8-year-old really know when they encounter questionable content online. Of course. Is it appropriate to teach them what to do in those circumstances? Unquestionably! And it is certainly our job to teach them how to be good digital citizens. We recently completed a project in 4th grade where our students published podcasts of their realistic fiction stories online. I gave the children an overview of "leaving appropriate comments:" first names only, but no anonymity allowed; leave helpful, specific and encouraging comments for each other; be proud enough of what you write to put your own name on it; anything posted anonymously gets deleted, as will questionable comments; follow-up conversations will be had. It's a small start, but it's a concrete (and moderated) experience in thoughtfulness, which hopefully paves the way for more positive behavior online. How did they do? They were brilliant, and I haven't had to delete or edit a single comment. Parents have contributed as well, modeling for the children appropriate content. Success!

The second article, As Bullies Go Digital, Parents Play Catch-Up, speaks to the fears of many parents, and tackles the problem of cyberbullying. "It is difficult enough to support one’s child through a siege of schoolyard bullying. But the lawlessness of the Internet, its potential for casual, breathtaking cruelty, and its capacity to cloak a bully’s identity all present slippery new challenges to this transitional generation of analog parents." How do we protect our kids from such cruelty? Can we? What if our kids are the perpetrators? First of all, we cannot afford to be ignorant of the world in which our kids spend considerable time. Most likely they will always be at least one step ahead of us, but that is why it is critical that we focus on the behaviors and not the technology. New things are going to pop up all the time, but our core values are not going to change along with the technology. Kindness, respect, and honesty will always rule the day, which is why my second piece of advice might be met with, "Well, duh!"


Do you want to know what they're doing online? Ask them. Do you want to understand how Facebook works? Have them teach you (or read this Parents' Guide to Facebook). Let them know that you expect them to be positive digital citizens, and that you want to talk to them about what that means. Ask them what they do when they come across questionable content. Has your child ever seen anything that truly made him uncomfortable? How did she handle it? Talk to your kids about how you feel when you read hurtful things published by anonymous lurkers on websites. Talk about everything! Engage in their world. Just about everything online is interactive in some way these days. The Internet invites you to participate. Though there may be great peril in that possibility, there is great power as well.

What will you do with it?