I spend a lot of time immersed in esafety and security issues and after four years I’m still trying to make sense of where we need to be with this – and it’s rarely as simple as some folk would have you believe.
This piece of writing is intended to help me understand; context, behaviours and meaning relating to online relationships – and these reflections may possibly be of some benefit to others in a similar place.
A key area of concern for parents, carers, and those with a responsibility for children, is young people’s perception of the importance and significance of online friends. As adults we are easy with our criticisms of children’s inability to understand the potential dangers of befriending others ‘on the internet’.
Teachers look on with horror when they see even young primary school children with hundreds of online friends and frequently see this as wreckless behaviour – leaving the children open to grooming, abduction .. and worse. This concern frequently translates into ‘banning’ Facebook et al or chastising the children for their ‘foolishness’, and sometimes, ‘stupidity’. This is closely followed by a whispered ‘I blame the parents’.
Meanwhile on the flip side we see alarmed, concerned parents and carers who are assaulted by media horror stories and, in turn, voice their frustrations; ‘I blame the school.. what do they teach them these days? They should spend a bit less time wasting money on computers and a bit more time teaching the kids properly.’
So what‘s the problem?
I’m frequently asked to go into schools as a response to incidents of online digital bullying between youngsters and I take this opportunity to discuss with the youngsters the meaning of ‘friend’ and ‘friendship’
Regardless of age the discussion goes something like this:
Me: So, what is a friend?
Kids: Someone you know
Someone you like
Someone who likes you
Someone who makes you laugh
And after a bit of investigation we usually get to a more considered discussion around
You have to be able to ‘see’ them to be a friend
Me: This is interesting, what about friends you know but have left the area – do you stop being friends when they are out of sight? Do pen pals who you’ve never met qualify as friends?
Almost always, regardless of primary, special or secondary, kids come to a conclusion that a friend is some you can ‘trust’.
Ah, ‘trust’..that’s important I think. My contribution to the discussion usually takes the form of me explaining that while I know many adults, it’s a very small select group that I would count as friends – and a simple definition for me is;
‘someone who, if on hard times, I‘d lend them £500 – or loan them my car’ – or more simply; ‘someone for whom I’d inconvenience myself – because I care about them’
Youngsters actually define and redefine their friendship criteria each time there’s an event such as a birthday party, sleep-over etc. where places are limited. This activity of ‘qualifying’ a friend is important and takes the discussion nicely to ‘How many online friends do you have?’
If I ask this question prior to the ‘friends’ discussion, kids will say proudly ‘ 300!‘ and ‘over 500’ and there will be gasps of admiration from others in the class. Ask the question after the discussion and they are already looking a little sheepish about the number of their online ‘friends’ – and how many of these can be ‘trusted’.
So, what’s the attraction of Big Numbers of online friends? Well you don’t need to be too clever to work out that the more friends you have, the more popular you must be – despite the fact that for mere mortals, managing hundreds of real friendships would be an impossible task.
It seems to me the problem lies in the word ‘friends’. If Facebook, Myspace etc. had named those people who can see your profile as ‘Associate Users of This Social Networking Service’ I’m pretty sure there would have been much less peer pressure for all of us to ‘add’ and ‘invite’ people we barely know, to our networks. “Friend’ has been hijacked by social networking sites and we’re paying the price.
If ‘adding’ people as friends is dangerous and problematic then the act of ‘unfriending’ and ‘blocking’ adds a whole new language for potentially, hurtful, bullying and conflict causing behaviours. In our day, if we lost interest in someone we didn’t say ‘We’re going to the pub but you’re not invited – you’re unfriended’ – in real life we are far more subtle and organic in our relationships.
Fortunately kids can look to us adults as positive role models right? I’m thinking no.
The average age of Facebook users has jumped seven years from 26 to 33 while on the microblogging site Twitter the average is 31(‘http://www.brandrepublic.com/News/964910/Youth-flock-Twitter-Facebook-users-start-show-age/)
Average User Figures
Average user has 130 friends on the site
Average user sends 8 friend requests per month(http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics)
So what do we know?
I know it’s futile to chastise and punish kids for failing to see the dangers of making their personal details, and opportunities to interact, public to the world while there is clear peer pressure, and modeling, by adults that this behaviour is normal.
I’m in no position to throw stones – Twitter is my sin.
I’m ‘following’ 600+ people and being followed by over a 1000 – I’m also on 67 lists, and in Twitter terms these figures are quite low. Surely if I was better at my job I’d have more followers?
Ah, ‘followers’ – I had a conversation with my daughter’s history teacher last week where she mentioned ‘Active History’ – a revision website created and managed by @ russeltarr. I almost said ‘I know him’ – Woah! I don’t ‘know’ him – not in the biblical sense – we’ve just had a few exchanges of 140 characters.
While we’re talking biblical, I almost said ‘I’m one of his followers’. Now I’m all for a bit of mutual respect, and the lad’s got himself a cracking website there, but it would be wrong to suggest that I’m about to commit the rest of my life to His Word.
So, I too am in a cyber place where I’m unsure of the correct language and behaviour. At BETT2010 several people on Twitter came to find me – in the flesh, so to speak. Like a kind of edtech blind date I could see their surprise to see me in person; older, smaller, odder?
I also found myself struggling to introduce fellow tweeters to ‘real’ people; ‘That’s @digitalmaverick, we follow each other on Twitter’ – sounds weird whichever way you say it. ‘We like to share ideas about teaching and learning in 140 characters’ – sounds as bizarre as kids having friends on Facebook who they’ve never met doesn’t it?
1000 words later and I’m unsure I’m any clearer, let’s resort to bullet points
- defining online relationships is difficult
- the language of online relationships is unresolved
- establishing who people really are is too hard, virtually
- children won’t know how to behave and exist online until we do
- there are adults on the internet who I haven’t met, who are so at ease with our online interactions, that we look forward to meeting person
I think it’s going to take some time for all of us to truly become comfortable with our digital identities and the nuances of those relationships. Until that time comes let’s try to show some tolerance and understanding – and help kids and adults benefit from the amazing opportunities that are out there.
end note- way back when I was a small boy, this book was in our house and I would read it time and time again 🙂