Pre-teens around the world are revealing a remarkable amount personal information on Facebook. Despite bans in schools and Facebook's own security roadblocks, 43% of 9 to 12-year-olds in Europe admit to holding a personal account and 12% reveal sensitive information, such as a phone number, on social networking sites. This has led the U.K. department of education, Ofsted, to recommend that schools teach students how to use the Internet safely, rather than ban it outright.
The London School of Economics survey of pre-teens use of social networking corresponds to similar numbers of children in the U.S., 46% of whom use social networking sites. The survey went further to find out that 23% have a public profile, meaning that anyone can see their account, and in some cases, photos and other more revealing information.
Public personas, especially ones with location-revealing information, make young users susceptible the manipulative tactics of pedophiles and bullies. News headlines are littered with cases of massive assaults: a 19-year-old that blackmailed dozens girls into sex after entrapping them into revealing explicit photos, a postman who found 1,000 children on his route, and a serial rapist. Additionally, children are sometimes a danger to themselves, posting incriminating photos that can permanently haunt them.
Facebook is cognizant of the problem, but the chief privacy advisor, Mozelle Thompson, admits, the system, "It's not perfect." Facebook's enormous user-to-employee ratio makes finding fraudulent youngsters an overwhelming task. Tech-savvy children have found surprising ways to dupe adults.
For example, in a child obesity study, participants attached pedometers to their pets to fool the sensors into thinking they were doing more exercise than they actually were. On Facebook, many young users employ a so-called "super log-off," which disables the account each time they leave the site, retaining the data and hiding the profile. In this case, super log-offs are privacy enhancing, but the practice underscores how pioneering users are making tracking their activity difficult.
As a result, Ofsted concluded that schools ought to embrace social technologies and use the opportunity to teach best practices. An abstinence "approach had disadvantages in the schools visited. As well as taking up time and detracting from learning, it did not encourage the pupils to take responsibility for their actions." Indeed, without permission to use such sites, it is difficult for students to stumble upon situations that lead to valuable teachable moments.
In more recent cases, several school districts are mulling communication bans between teachers and students on social networks. "The Ogden School District does not encourage personal relationships between teachers and students that involve Web sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter or texting," said Donna Corby, a district spokeswoman.
Yet, for educators, social media is a new way to entice students with intellectual activities outside of class and encourage technological experimentation. At Wiregrass High School, students share homework and blackboard notes via cell phone photos. Many professors are using sites, such as Twitter, to continue discussions after class ends. For teachers who normally preside over a class of bored students, any glimmer of interest in academics is an alluring environment.
Moreover, recent studies have shown that teachers who reveal personal information to students online are perceived as more competent, caring, and trustworthy. As teachers begin to compete with computers and Wikipedia as the primary source of education, the burden of relevance is an increasing worry.
To date, no organization, from the government of China to Ogden school district, has found a way to prevent access to social media. According to the Ofsted report, the best option for educators may be to ditch social media abstinence and start educating about safe uses of the tools. Sound familiar?
[Image: Flickr user P i c t u r e Y o u t h]