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

Thursday, September 13, 2012

What Do I Tell My Girls?

My FB post...
not enough space for what's in my head and heart
Wednesday evening as I was checking Facebook, I flashed back to a moment in the car that morning on the way to school. A local news radio station was on, and my girls (ages 9 and 11) were asking questions about the big news story of the morning out of Benghazi, Libya.  Not deeply entrenched in middle eastern politics at their tender ages, "What's an ambassador?" was a great question to get us started on the current events of the day. During the top-of-the-hour news segment, however, I got completely derailed by a local story involving Facebook, teenage girls, and nude photos that was highlighted. I was so disturbed by the very end of the story, I knew I had to post something about it here as it is so completely related to issues of ethics, responsible choices, and the digital world. But as I tried to craft a brief snippet for the Ethics4ADW Facebook feed, I realized I was having a really hard time keeping it short, while still trying to represent my feelings on the subject. To the blog!

I know that last time I posted something I promised to write about positive things about the internet. I still plan to! But while this event is fresh in my mind, I want to try to get my thoughts down....

The facts of this story are deeply disturbing:
  • a 24-year old man took advantage of young teenage girls, allegedly threatening them into sending  him sexually explicit photos of themselves
  • girls sent him the images in exchange for "gifts"
  • two of these girls agreed to meet this man in person
  • he has been charged with 25 felonies (according to the TNT, "[he] is charged with multiple counts each of communication with a minor for immoral purposes, possession of depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, second-degree extortion, sexual exploitation of a minor and viewing depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.")
  • he pleaded not guilty, despite photographic and video evidence
I'm not a lawyer, and I don't plan to try and make a legal case against anyone here as there are plenty of details to which I am not privy. I am grateful one of the girls finally came forward and got the authorities involved, though I'm guessing "25 felonies" wasn't in her conceptual framework for what was going on here. I think by the end of the radio news segment, I said something aloud like, "THAT'S why you never take naked pictures of yourself!"but I'm hopeful my kids did not hear that way in the back of our van, because it was a thoughtless, throwaway remark, and I haven't ever actually talked to my kids about nude self-portraits. Besides, as awful as the details are, that's not what had me the most upset (though perhaps in hindsight, it should have been). The last piece in this story was a direct quote from someone for whom I didn't hear credentials. I'm sure whoever was interviewed had plenty to say, but the only snippet quoted in the broadcast ended with this:

"This is why parents should monitor their children's activities online. The internet is populated with perverts and criminals."

Wow.

I am sure for this story, the message was supposed to be something along the lines of be careful with what you choose to share online, and please monitor your children closely. The intent was to caution parents and spare others this horrible situation. But this blanket generalization hit a major nerve with me because it is NOT the message I want my children to hear. Yes, there are perverts and criminals online. The world is not always a nice place, and I'd rather not have them learn that lesson the hard way. But I also don't want to scare them into thinking the internet is a black hole of nefarious boogeymen. We are online EVERY DAY. We use the internet for education, entertainment, communication. We talk about what not to do, what it means to have a digital identity, how much control you have over it (and how to take control of it), and the consequences of poor decisions...maybe not enough yet, but we do talk about these things, and we will continue to do so as my girls mature and understand the concepts more deeply. For now, the computer is in a common space, and it is used predominantly during homework time. There are rules at our house for time spent online, and though I don't block anything from my kids, search filters are "moderate" and I request that they ask permission before visiting a site we haven't looked at together before. They are not allowed to have accounts with services that require a minimum age of 13. I will not sign them up and lie about their age, creating an even larger digital footprint based on a fundamental untruth. Thirteen isn't some magic age kids reach and find themselves suddenly capable of making great decisions, mind you, but following a site's guidelines (such as Facebook's) is an ethical choice that I want to model. In our house, we begin with these guidelines so we are practiced and ready for expanded access and privileges as we enter the teenage years. We Google our own names to demonstrate the power and reach of the internet and to see what is already "out there" about us that we might not have even known about. My goal is to teach my kids to be responsible digital citizens, to contribute positively to the online world. The same things I teach in the classroom about being safe, responsible, critical, and proactive I teach at home.

I cannot fathom what would prompt a young girl to send naked pictures of herself to a stranger she met online. What I mean to say is, I think I can understand it intellectually and psychologically, but not personally. That type of exposure would never have occurred to me in my teens, and if one of my daughters was involved in such a thing, I'm honestly not sure how I would react. I sympathize with and understand parents who lament the "good old days" when this type of thing wasn't even possible and we didn't have to worry about it. But that is not the world we live in. The internet did not invent bad choices and inappropriate behavior. Perverts and criminals have been around longer than Facebook. So what is my job as an educator and a mother in this digital age? The same it has always been. To teach, guide, love and support.

I choose to believe that the decisions I make with my own children (and the lessons I hope to impart) will arm them with the tools necessary to embrace the digital world with purpose, but without fear.

........

This analysis (or simple sharing of feelings) still feels quite incomplete, but I have not before picked apart a news story and voiced my own opinions about the behaviors of the people involved. It's extremely uncomfortable.  I do not feel it is my place to sit in judgment of others when I neither know all the facts of a story, nor the thoughts and feelings of those involved.  I worry for these girls in the story, and their reasons for exposing such intimate parts of themselves to a complete stranger. I worry about their ability to see an anonymous person online as a "stranger," regardless of how a digital relationship might make them feel. As an educator and mother, I read these stories and look for the teachable moments within them. What can I teach my kids here? What can they learn from this? Honestly, I probably would not have even discussed this story were in not for the ominous and far reaching quote at the end of the radio broadcast. If I were a law enforcement officer who was constantly confronted by the darker side of humanity in dealing with digital crimes, I would probably say the same thing. However, the criminal side of the internet isn't the only thing out there, and I think it is the responsibility of educators to show the other side.

Ultimately, my goal is not for my children to learn that the internet is a scary place. It may very well be (in some instances and spaces). But I don't automatically assume that the worst elements of humanity will suck my kids in.  I want them to be safe and to make responsible decisions online. I want them to feel empowered by their ability to make good choices, not fearful that they must always be on guard for danger. After years in the digital world myself, I find that I don't often come across negative or dangerous things because that is not how I choose to spend my time online. How did I get this way if not for the guidance of my teachers, parents and loved ones? I was long out of high school when the internet (as we know it today) even came along. But the core of who I am, and my notions of right and wrong, were already firmly established by the time I found the world (good and bad) at my fingertips.

Why don't I  want my kids to absorb the message that "the internet is populated with perverts and criminals?"

Because I believe in the power of sharing information, collaboration, access to educational content, and the vast library of expert material that is available at the touch of a button. I believe the benefits of access to the internet far outweigh the dangers. I believe that caution and fear are not the same thing. I believe that a child educated in what it truly means to be a positive digital citizen can make this world a better place...

...and I hope our children will take their best shot at it.

  • Read more here: http://www.thenewstribune.com/2012/09/11/2291772/jblm-soldier-charged-with-exploiting.html#storylink=cpy"

2 comments:

  1. Holly,

    Great post. You are a talented write with a knack for keen and yet personal analysis. I have struggled with the Benghazi situation myself. Thanks for the insight.

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  2. Holly- Beautifully written.
    I think you are absolutely right- education, not fear, is always the best way forward - for us and for our children. If we teach them fear, they are reactive and afraid and closed. If we teach them, they learn how to assess, process, consider, decide. While this happened in the digital world, it could just as easily have happened in the 'real world' at a friend's house, at a party, at any real place. When we teach our children how to think, it carries over from one arena to another.
    That said, we also need compassion so that when things happen, and they will, we are ready and full of love to support our children- and they will know it is safe to tell us what is going on.
    Clear boundaries around spaces to explore and learn, all under the umbrella of love.
    thanks for writing such a wonderful piece,
    Emily

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