This is a transcript of a 2012 interview of Vanessa Domine by the editors of Weekly Reader. You can check out their article, “Out of Line Online” for middle-school students by [clicking here].
WR: Why should a kid be careful about what they share online? What are the dangers?
Domine: While some people (usually adults) may say that the internet itself is a dangerous place, a more current (and democratic) philosophy is that the dangers lie in our individual and collective behaviors on the internet—not the internet itself. After all, there is so much rich and useful information on the internet and let’s face it—it’s a virtual playground. While it’s great to enjoy all the good things about the internet, it’s dangerous to assume that your information is private or that no one is looking. The dangers of sharing your full name, your school, where you live, your phone number or email address is that you are making yourself open and even vulnerable for those who may not have your best interests or intentions in mind. For better and for worse, people (including strangers as well as friends) can find you.
The technology is changing so rapidly that it’s not always easy to tell how your personal information is shared or who has access to it. Some of the specific dangers include identity theft. Sharing passwords or access codes could lead to someone impersonating you or accessing your personal information. Seemingly harmless transactions like taking quizzes or surveys that ask for your opinions and preferences—or even entering a contest might actually be a way for marketers or even hackers to harvest your personal information that could lead to hidden charges. It’s not so much that the internet itself is dangerous; rather, the most danger lies in being reckless about personal information and behavior online (and offline).
WR: Most kids probably think in terms of not sharing too much with strangers. But what could be the problems that come out of sharing too much online with people they DO know?
Domine: There is a lot of fear-mongering out there about online predators. But the reality is that most sexual solicitations are from peers, not strangers. To extend the “don’t talk to strangers” principle, your online “friends” should mirror those you have in reality. Sharing too much information with “friends” can lead to a false sense of security and trust that just doesn’t exist on the internet. Your words and images can later come back to haunt you. Since there are relatively few nonverbal cues to lend meaning to online communication, we might attribute anger or sarcasm to a message where the sender may not have intended that at all. So any kid can find him or herself on either side of the cyberbullying equation whether intentionally or unintentionally. It really comes down to being a good cybercitizen. By recognizing that communication is abbreviated online and can be misinterpreted, we should go out of our way to convey good will—which will reduce aggression and inflamatory speech.
WR: How should a pre-teen decide what to share and what not to share online? For example, what might be some scenarios were kids need to think carefully before they type away?
Domine: I use the A-squared method: Autobiography & Audience. First, it’s important to look inward at what motivates your choices. The choices we make about internet use are reflective of the choices we make with other types of media. Just because you may see sexually explicit images in magazines and on TV does not mean it’s appropriate content for your online world. Whatever you seek online is what you’ll find, so its important to engage in healthy online behavior that is age-appropriate and constructive. It’s never okay to send pornographic images and it’s never okay to engage in cyberbullying.
Secondly, look outward at who else is watching your online behavior (audience). Not all privacy settings are 100% reliable and there is much more at stake if you make a mistake. You might not be that concerned that the entire world has access to your information, until you realize that the world includes your parents, grandparents, priest, teacher, and future employer. So being irresponsible with your personal information can damage your relationships and even your future opportunity to be admitted to college.
WR: What should a kid do if they think they or one of their friends is being cyberbullied? How should they deal with it?
Domine: Tell the person to stop. Cease online communications until the conflict has been resolved in person. Positive peer pressure and a reminder that uncivil behavior should not be tolerated in your online community. Report the behavior to the administrators and use the technology to block the person from communicating. Remove “friends” who post mean comments or photos of you without your permission. Get a parent involved. If it is occurring on a school community, get a school administrator involved.
WR: Are there any legal ramifications for kids if they lie about their ages online?
Domine: There is a difference between living out a fantasy character online (Dungeons & Dragons) and lying about your age. There is no way for social networks to tell if kids are lying about their age, so it’s not really preventable from a technology standpoint. It really is a testing ground for being an adult. Look for sites that have lower age requirements.
Parents need to set the example and not teach their children to lie or endorse lying by allowing them to set up user accounts if they are under the age limit of 13. Information spreads rapidly and although you think you can “delete” information, in reality it never really goes away. Most social network accounts are not fully deleted, just “deactivated,” which means the information still resides on their servers.