Saturday, February 15, 2014

Blown by the Winds of Social Media

by Julia Margaret Cameron
I'm a parent with elementary aged children who don't (yet) use social media. They don't know what it is and thus have no interest in it. But I know other parents who have children that are steeped in it, and the word on the street is this: their girls hang on the number of "likes" that they get on Instagram.

I catch up with these mothers at parties or on the phone. When the conversation turns to their pre-teen and teenage daughters, they give a small groan and begin their diatribe against texting and Instagram.

It seems their daughters have a "good day" or a "bad day" based upon the number of Instagram followers they have, the number of likes their Instagram photos garner, and the tone of their friends via text messaging. One of my friends' 13 year-old daughter posted an Instragram photo, and it didn't get as many "likes" as she wanted. This worried her greatly. So she sent pleading texts to her friends, begging them to "like" the photo. Her friends, in the same predicament, negotiated with her. "I'll like yours if you like mine." An agreement was reached, "likes" were shared all around, and that seemed to make everyone momentarily happier.

Another mother told me that she was struggling to teach her daughter that her self worth was so much more than the amount of attention she received online, but to no avail. "She's beautiful and smart," the mother said sadly, "but she doesn't feel popular online. She can't see past the amount of "likes" that she gets."

I may be their parents' age, but I can empathize with the teenagers. One of the reasons that I dislike Facebook is how it makes me feel: insecure after I spend time perusing through pictures of parties that I wasn't invited to, angry after reading someone's political rants that I disagree with, and certainly jealous of people that brag about their vacations that I would love to take but can't seem to afford. Oh, and all the feelings above when people complain that they make so much money they are in a special tax bracket. (Yes, you read that right.)

Yet I have the benefit of age and (hopefully) wisdom. I don't like how spending time on Facebook makes me feel, and so I choose to use it infrequently. I've realized that the people who had parties that I wasn't invited to weren't really my friends, and to be honest, I probably wouldn't have gone anyway.

I can recognize that a "friend" may be posting smiling pictures of their family skipping along a tropical beach, but she may also be arguing the whole time with their husband or kids. And who's to say that my vacation was less terrific than anyone else's?

I'm old enough to know that, in spite of their glamorous pictures and posts, most people intimately understand hardship and sadness from their real life experiences. This is just not what they share publicly.

But things would be much different if I were my younger self in today's world. Like almost all teenagers, I remember desperately yearning for acceptance from my peers and in some cases, just plain acknowledgement. Thankfully, social networking wasn't even a gleam in anyone's eye back then.

After noticing the theme of emotional roller coasters and teenage insecurity in conversations with other parents, I reasoned there would be some articles on the subject, and there is. One of the best voices that I found explaining the conundrum to parents is a Christian church worker that serves middle school students in a blog called "Life As Of Late."
...Have you considered that your child is given numerical values on which to base his or her social standing? For the first time ever your children can determine their “worth” using actual numbers provided by their peers!
Your daughter has 139 followers which is 23 less than Jessica, but 56 more than Beau. Your son’s photo had 38 likes which was 14 less than Travis’ photo, but 22 more than Spencer’s. There’s a number attached to them. A ranking....It’s not just about assumed popularity anymore. It’s explicit. It’s quantifiable.
At arguably the most awkward time in their lives, a crucial time of development when they are trying to figure out who they are and where they belong, this is what they’re up against. A quantifiable popularity ranking....
They know exactly – to the digit – how many followers they have (and who they follow that isn’t following them back). They get their feelings hurt when the popular kids “like” the pictures above and below theirs on the Instagram newsfeed, but not their picture. They delete pictures of themselves when they don’t get as many likes as they were hoping for. They don’t get invited to parties, but see all the fun they missed out on in every photo posted from it. They post ugly pictures of their friends to get revenge for some heinous act they committed (like saying Louis is their favorite One Direction member).
I don't think that Instagram, and other social media outlets, will go away, nor do I advise banning your kids from it - as I said, I'm not in that boat yet. Keeping our kids totally disconnected from their peers is probably not the answer (although sometimes it sounds appealing).

The only thoughts that I have is that parents should be aware of their children's personal insecurities and be aware of what they're doing online. With sensitivity, wisdom and strength, we should try to help our kids navigate this new popularity game. And help each other, too.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Microsoft Participates in Safer Internet Day by Insafe

Now here is a corporate effort I can support. Microsoft plugged and participated in International Safer Internet Day, held February 11, organized by Insafe, and co-funded by the European Union.

As a participant and sponsor, the corporation:

  • Launched an interactive web site that encourages "people to 'Do 1 Thing' to stay safer online." (It might be noteworthy that the effort also supports TechSoup Global, which delivers technology to those in need, according to MS)
  • They released the results of the annual Microsoft Computing Safety Index (MCSI), which surveys 10,000 Internet users about their online safety behaviors. Some highlights of this report:
"Results show the annual worldwide impact of phishing and various forms of identity theft could be as high as $5.0 billion, with the cost of repairing damage to peoples’ online reputations higher still at nearly $6.0 billion. Still, only one in five (21 percent) of those surveyed said they take advantage of web-browser filters to help protect against phishing, and less than a third (31 percent) said they educate themselves about protecting their online reputations. Even fewer respondents said they use technical tools to edit or delete info about them online (19 percent), or use search engines to “Bing themselves” (15 percent)."
  • Helping to sponsor the US's first official Safer Internet Day event in Washington, DC, hosted by (Wry editorial note: other sponsors include giants like Google, Sprint, Twitter, and Facebook- perhaps this is more of a PR move than anything else?)
  • Provided Internet safety activities for their Redmond, WA employees
It's nice to see that a large US corporation recognizes the importance to making the Internet safer for everyone. 

But perhaps a bigger story is that Insafe exists (before today, I didn't know about it), and that it appears to be a thriving organization that has buy-in from most European countries. I'm adding this organization to's list of resources and will follow the group's efforts.

For more information, see Microsoft's Safer Internet Day page on their Safety and Security web site and the Microsoft Services Jobs blog.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Call to Parents: Ask About Friends' Internet Access

My nine year-old daughter, Ella (not her real name), recently told me a story. Well, first she told the babysitter, who gently hinted to me that I should talk to her.

The story goes like this: A few months ago, while playing at a friend's house, the friend (also nine years old) openly and willingly searched for sex videos on her iTouch, excited to shared the results with my daughter. She showed her two videos. My daughter reported that she got an eye full, then quickly turned away, and told her friend that she didn't want to see anymore. And she rode her bike home crying, vowing to never play with that friend again.

I won't share the details of our conversation, or my concerns about how this has been affecting my daughter (and trust me, it has been affecting her). But when I asked Ella why she didn't tell me sooner, she said that she was afraid that I would tell the other girl's parents, who would tell their daughter, and consequently the other girl would bully her at school. And that, too, makes me sad.

Now, I have several questions.

For myself: How could I have been so naive?

Yes, it's certainly ironic that I write this blog about technology and its interaction with and potential harm to children and families, and yet I didn't adequately protect my daughter. I could have, should have, asked the parents about their home Internet policies - or lack thereof. I was naive to think that other parents have some barriers to Internet access for their kids, at least in the form of supervision. Lesson, unfortunately, learned.

For the young friend's parents: Where were you?

Where were you when your daughter looked up these videos in front of my daughter? And where were you when she did the same to other children (as we know she has)? What were you thinking when you handed over an iTouch to a nine year-old without, apparently, providing strict instructions as to what is appropriate to search for and share with other children?

For other parents and readers: Are you protecting your kids?

Have you thought about the fact that other children have access to personal devices - and that they know how to use them well? Do you know that other parents do, in fact, allow unfettered Internet access to their children?

Have you thought about how you will vet the family of your child's new friend before the children play together? Do you have a script to share with other parents that politely but firmly explains your views? Are you prepared to disallow the playdate if your expectations for a safe playdate won't be met?

And if you don't mind full Internet access for your kids, please have the decency and courtesy to recognize that other parents don't feel comfortable with this, and your family should look out for the interests of the children that you invite into your home.

For our community at large: Do we really know what we're getting into?

During our discussion, my babysitter shared an interesting observation with me. "I feel so sad for her," she said. "We didn't have anything like that [personal devices] when I was growing up."

My babysitter is 18 years old.

That's obviously quite young, demonstrating how quickly changes in technology are moving in on our families. Are we sure that devices for kids and wide open Internet access for all ages, whether purposeful or through negligence, is a good idea? Have we thoroughly thought through potential pitfalls? Are we sure we want to throw all of the responsibility for protecting our children directly in the laps of parents who can't always watch every move our children make?

I also wonder if any of this going to affect our children's relationships both now and as they age? Will our children have a realistic expectation of a loving sexual relationship after they've been exposed to unrealistic and fantastical videos?

As a side bar, Ella came home from a sleepover last weekend (different friend), sad because the friend kept pestering her mother to let her play an individual computer game - sending the message to my daughter that she was less interested in playing with her. The mother, thankfully, kept the child off the device until 15 minutes before the designated pickup time. As my daughter prepared to leave with me, the other child barely looked up from the computer to say goodbye to my daughter, and that hurt her feelings even more.

I feel like I'm in a daily struggle to defend my daughters' rights to be children, free from sex videos, adult music lyrics (another story), texting obsessions and from taking second place behind a video game. I want them to learn about the world in an age-appropriate way, to keep them young and innocent while they truly deserve to be so.

And yet, as much as I want to protect my daughters, I also want them to be connected with their peers and to be technologically street smart as they get older. I sometimes feel overwhelmed and unprepared by this conflict. The only thing left to do is to learn as I go along and hope that I get the balance, and the timing, right.