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June 29, 2010 / Jim Fenton

Teaching Kids Good Behavior on the Internet

As the father of a girl entering sixth grade in the fall, I was drawn to an article on the front page of this past Monday’s The New York Times dealing with cyberbullying, particularly in middle school.  The story highlighted the problems that schools have dealing with this problem, because of inconsistent laws, the fact that much of the behavior happens outside school, and related issues.

The opening to the story introduced an incident where a sixth grade girl received explicit, threatening messages from the cell phone of a 12-year-old boy classmate.  The parents had insisted that the boy be punished, but the principal cited the out-of-school nature of the offense, and asked if they had contacted the boy’s family.

Too awkward, they replied.  The fathers coach sports together.

These parents seem to think that they can outsource a difficult conversation like this to the school, rather than take responsibility for it themselves.  Knowing the other parent through a sports activity is exactly the kind of relationship that should make it easier, not harder, to have a conversation of this sort.

Many parents seem to think that giving their kids access to a computer, an email account, and a little instruction on the mechanics of sending and receiving messages is all they need to teach about email.  Or that kids need to know about the 140 character limit for SMS (cell phone text messages) and they’re all set.  Wrong on both accounts.  Kids need to understand that email messages, text messages, and the like need to be composed with extra sensitivity.  Unlike verbal comments, they can be reread, forwarded, and stored indefinitely.  There is also the likelihood that, in the absence of visual and tonal cues common in verbal communication, messages can be misinterpreted, and they need to be written to minimize that possibility.

These conversations need to take place between parent and child when they start using electronic media, and need to continue for some time thereafter.  Unfortunately, a lot of the parents may not have learned these messages themselves.

The arrangement I have set up for my daughter, which she is very aware of, is that I screen all of her incoming messages except those from a list of trusted addresses.  I have a procmail script set up to do this automatically, sending her untrusted messages to a mail folder I control, from which I can redirect messages that look OK to her.  This was originally done for spam control, and at this age, I feel it’s appropriate.  I expect to eliminate the filtering by the time she’s 13, the age where many of the protections of COPPA go away.

Fortunately, my daughter hasn’t received anything hurtful so far.  The worst was a chain letter message that had been forwarded around many times and had the email addresses of probably 100 or so middle school kids.  Parents need to recognize that when kids are forwarding these they typically reveal their email addresses (which had often been carefully chosen to be obscure) to a wide audience, something they obviously didn’t intend.  Because the messages usually predict dire consequences for those who don’t forward the message, parents need to specifically coach on not propagating such things.

I wonder what education the parents in the story did when setting up their daughter with a cell phone or email.  Or did they expect that they could outsource this to her school?

2 Comments

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  1. Barry Leiba / Jun 30 2010 8:04 pm

    Knowing the other parent through a sports activity is exactly the kind of relationship that should make it easier, not harder, to have a conversation of this sort.

    That’s what I thought, too. But then I thought that it’d depend upon what you know about the other parent. Perhaps it’s more like, “The fathers coach sports together, and the boy’s father is a belligerent jerk.”

    It’s possible that the boy learned to be abusive and threatening from very close by.

    • Jim Fenton / Jun 30 2010 9:16 pm

      I probably should have included the rest of the story:

      The boy claimed to have lost his cell phone. His grammar was so poor (yet the messages were fairly grammatical) that the school concluded that the messages were, in fact, sent by someone else using his phone. An interesting case of being saved by bad grammar.

      Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the boy’s father is easy to talk to.

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