So you’d let your kids play in an unsupervised playground?

There’s been a good bit of talk again of late about Bebo and Facebook and YouTube and the good and evil that happens in and around them.

I’m a proponent of social networks and think like most technologies that they’re a very positive thing but anything that enhances one aspect of humanity can enhance the good or the bad.

Social networks in the Irish context sprung up overnight and became the defacto place to hang online for teenagers and those in their early twenties. This still holds true. It was a new place and a new way of interacting. Our current daily social norms have taken 100s if not 1000s of years to form, Bebo is a new world where these norms are being worked out as we speak by those inside it and those outside must be baffled and scared when maybe they should be bringing their wisdom and experiences into it to share and guide people.

Zoned out on code
Photo owned by ToastyKen (cc)

The good:

Relationships are accentuated with social networks. They’re good people management tools. We can store details of dozens and hundreds of friends and acquaintances. The mobile phone allowed us to store hundreds of numbers on our phone that we’d never remember without a physical address book. The social network expands on that. Our friends can update us by just changing their status on Facebook or upload pics of their holidays to Bebo and everyone they’re connected to get informed of this and can look at the pictures. The daysof sending 15 postcards to people is over. A facebook update takes care of it all. Social networks also reconnect us with old friends, friends who we’d never remain in contact with because of Geography. Families scattered around the world can stay connected and informed via social networks. I often chat to old college friends in America and New Zealand. Because of the ability to stay connected over a lifetime and over continents, our friends lists are much larger than before. The Dunbar number with the idea we can only maintain a certain amount of quality relationships with people has been inflated hugely now. I firmly believe humanity is becoming far more friendly because of these technologies.

Photo owned by Annie Mole (cc)

The bad:

With this new Big Brother and American Idol nasty culture, everyone seems to want to be nastier than Simon Cowell and on social networks, blogs and YouTube you see some people trying to outdo each other on how can be most vitriolic. In a normal social situation people like this would be rebuked but online that doesn’t seem to happen. Given the positive reinforcement from mainstream TV shows, it’s only encouarging people to explore their hyper-critical sides. I’m reminded of a free class in school that gets rowdier and rowdier as time goes on and gets calmed down with the teacher next door coming in or the free class ending when the next class starts. Imagine this rowdy class going on forever. Not good.

There does not appear to be much supervision on these sites of the kids. Playgrounds do not necessarily have supervisors but they are within reach of homes and people doing about their business in estates. Sites like Bebo, Facebook and YouTube have report abuse functions and they seem to be working hard at making them better but it’s not that you need adults going “stop that” but you do need people going “Do you not think that? How about?”.

Choose your poison
Photo owned by szlea (cc)

The utterly horrible:

Things can go out of control quite quickly. Like real life there’s bullying and harassment though it can be controlled slightly as you can lock down a profile and deny the bullies access to leaving comments. Like Lord of the flies though, kids without adult guidance could take things down a wrong path and keep going and going and going. Bullies in real life are recording their attacks (what is it with bullies and dictators being some of the earliest adopters of tech?) which rang from tauting, to violence and beatings and uploading them to YouTube and Bebo and distributing these videos amongst their peers. The videos get taken down eventually or sometimes rapidly after complaints but pop up again in new videos that get around the blocking software. The bullies build shrines to their attacks like the way some serial killers takes momentos of their murders. You have terrorist groups doling out punishment beatings to people or covering people in paint as a visual method of ascerting their authority and this tar and feathering is now happening online too. But it’s accentuated. A network of 1000 kids can see a video within hours wheras word of mouth is a lot lot slower than that.

So what can be done?

Don’t ban Bebo or social networks. Parents should learn how to use social networks and take part in them and see where their kids are playing these days. They should be able to dive in and out now and then but without excessively spying on their kids but parents should have the ability to make sure everything is ok. Same goes for teachers. Demanding access to their profile though, I’m not so sure. I do wonder whether the report abuse functions should be better too. Were I Bebo I’d consider the Community model where the community looks after each other with voluntary moderators ensuring smooth sailing. Perhaps if you are under 16 for example you’re profile is always connected to an identified counsellor or team of counsellors who can give advice.

The services do have age restrictions but it’s not like they ask you to prove your age so 8 year olds can just like and say they’re 15 and they’re on Bebo. YouTube is 16 and over, Facebook and Bebo are 13 and over, in line with US data protection laws and MySpace is 14 and over.

The worst thing a parent can possibly do is believe the hype that only bad things happen on these sites and they need to slam them without ever understanding them and I fear that’s what is happening again and again.

A big thank you to Josie Fraser for her advice and thoughts on this area. Here’s a great overview to Cyberbullying and how to deal with it. RTE 1’s Prime Time programme is doing a piece on Cyber Bullying tonight at 2130. It might be worth watching.

11 Responses to “So you’d let your kids play in an unsupervised playground?”

  1. Darragh says:

    Were I Bebo I’d consider the Community model where the community looks after each other with voluntary moderators ensuring smooth sailing

    The worst thing a parent can possibly do is believe the hype that only bad things happen on these sites

    Both excellent points. I think – especially for kids with low self confidence or poor face-to-face people skills the social networks can be a lot of fun and a channel for their creativity.

    More and more I’m seeing young people uploading their photos and sketches, their stories and home made videos for their friends to see, comment on and enjoy.

    I’ve always likened it to the thrill you’d have seeing your name and photo in the local paper (in anything but the court notices ;-)) It’s your corner of the interweb and a place people can come to you without you having to push yourself on them.

    Yes there are bad things but as you say, with proper care and attention – community – these can be managed and avoided.

    There’s an onus on parents to educate themselves about the sites their kids are visiting. That way they can all be secure in the interaction.

  2. MJ says:

    That’s a good balanced argument Damien.

    Have you heard of the sociological correlation between modes of (instant) communication and suicide rates on a more general sense? When one goes up… It is not a new argument that technology and suicide are linked – since people have stopped writing letters, sociologists have been considering emails/texts/chatrooms/etc. in their study of this morbid topic. Emile Durkheim studied suicide but he was around about 100 years too soon for the interweb…

    It’s ironic to think that the more efficient we get in terms of communication, the more physically distant we become. It’s brilliant when you can chat instantly with family in far reaches, I love the Internet for that. When it is not so great, is when you realise you haven’t heard your friend’s voice in about 2 months even though you text/IM all the time, and you live in the same city!

    Although it’s sad topic, I agree that rather than taking draconian measures and banning valid modes of communication, (official or unofficial) methods of monitoring and regulation should be considered. I’d sign up to help in flash.

  3. B'dum B'dum says:

    One of bebo’s biggest flaws in my opinion is the huge level of underuse for private messages, everyone seems to post their messages in the public comment section.
    It’s a lot easier to blurt out the truth openly on the internet. So what I imagine happenes quite a lot is someone comments a snide remark about someone on another person’s page, then the person they were attacking sees it and the friction between parties gradually escalates.
    There is also something about the internet where there’s a certain emotional detachment where people can say hurtful things far easier than saying them to someone else in person.

    I’m in full support of social-networking sites as I was a very quiet person a few years ago and made several real-world friends from blogs and things like that which I put up on bebo.

  4. Conor says:

    Just saw the prime time investigation on this.

    I think with bebo being such an open platform ,for people to be able to create whatever profile they want and what content to have on that profile, its nearly impossible to censor and police the website.

    I really hope parents and the media don’t point the blame finger at the owners and creators of bebo because its the users that make the social networking site what it is.

    I’m doing my JC in June this year and I’ve seen my fair share of things on bebo that I know the teenager wouldn’t want their parents seeing.
    I think the counselor idea is good but theres far too many profiles to keep account of.

    I remember when you used to make a bebo profile you would have to join your school.
    Maybe if the school staff monitored the goings on of the people that joined that school things would improve a bit.

    To be honest I think it may be a little to late to do that now though.

    Sorry for my poor grammar,English is not one of my strong points!

  5. steve white says:

    rte says the internet is evil

  6. […] that was me on Prime Time last night. I blogged about Bebo and YouTube yesterday if you want my complete thoughts on it, not just […]

  7. […] Interviewed as part of the report, Damien Mulley has posted more thoughts here. […]

  8. quovadis says:

    Great post. Bebo and the like are tools that can be used for good or bad.
    My teenagers both use them extensively and find them great for keeping in touch with their friends and making arrangements when there’s a gang involved. In our house the broadband going down is more of a problem for them then the cable for TV!.
    We do however make a point of talking about what’s going on in the internet, stressing every thing is public and also talking about cyber bullying. Part of the deal we agreed is I have permission to look at their bebo accounts. I discovered at one stage one of their group was running a poll to see who of two people was the better actor in a school play. (one of the actors was not in the group, so that had to come down)
    Also I’ve heard of some cases where school teachers are using public Bebo profiles to comment/make friends on/with pupils. This is dangerous for the teacher.

  9. B'dum B'dum says:

    I’ve heard cases if students finding young teachers profiles, which are loaded with photos of them dressed like sluts and heavily drunk.

  10. […] proactive – I am just not sure if these courses are compulsory yet or not. See the Webwise site, Damien’s article and this useful cyberbullyingguide for more information. Adding further material on what not to put […]

  11. […] So you’d let your kids play in an unsupervised playground? […]