Young Lives Online

A recent New York Times article discussed how some American companies, before employing young people just out of college, are looking at how they present themselves in online communities such as MySpace and Facebook.

Not surprisingly, many kids in high school and college use these “protected” online spaces to try on personas, indulging in the posturing common to adolescents, such as claiming attitudes and behaviors that they rarely, if ever, actually indulge in. This is no different from teen posturing in real life, except that, instead of being performed for an audience of their peers, it’s available for all the world to see.

” ‘The term [companies have] used over and over is red flags… Is there something about [a potential employee’s] lifestyle that we might find questionable or that we might find goes against the core values of our corporation?’ ”

It seems to me that any company which decides NOT to hire a person on the basis of their MySpace profile falls into three errors:

  1. Assuming that what’s presented there is real.
  2. Assuming that, even if true, high school or college behavior reflects how someone will behave in adult working life. Many working adults smoke dope or drink on weekends, without letting it affect their working lives. A sign of adulthood is in fact the ability to behave appropriately in each of the different spheres of your life.
  3. Rampaging hypocrisy. Could all of these puritanically-minded recruiters truthfully say that they did not behave like adolescents during their adolescence? Could they say the same for every current employee of their organization?

A few of the companies contacted for the NYT article said that they do not conduct such investigations of potential employees, some explicitly stating that they felt such material to be irrelevant (good for them!). Nonetheless, I suspect that the phenomenon is more likely to grow than shrink, given America’s Puritanical bent.

That being the case, how should young people behave online?

The key is to realize that the Internet is a hyper-public piazza, in which you should assume that everything you say, no matter when or to whom, is being recorded – and may someday be held against you. We’ve all made the mistake of accidentally copying an email to the very person denigrated in it. There have been well-aired cases of regrettable emails being publicized, to the humiliation and sometimes material damage of the originator. Even Microsoft has been hoist with its own petard by internal emails which became public knowledge thanks to subpoenas or leaks.

The only way to be absolutely safe is never to say anything online that you might someday regret, or that you might not wish some third party to hear. An oft-cited rule of thumb is: “Don’t put anything out there that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see.”

Which is, of course, extreme and unreasonable – we all have sides to ourselves that we don’t share with our grandmothers. Perhaps a better rule of thumb is: “Don’t put anything out there that you wouldn’t want your parents to see.” And then for the parents to actually go and look.

A newly-published study on teens’ use of MySpace and their parents’ perception thereof is enlightening. It shows that, while parents profess to be concerned about what their teens may be doing or experiencing on MySpace (their fears heightened by media hysteria), “38% have not seen their teen’s MySpace page and 40% never look at their teen’s MySpace pictures.”

Furthermore, “Less than half the parents say they have limits on both computer use
(46%) and MySpace use (32%) but kids say that those limits are not followed.” And: “One-third of the parents are not sure about whether their teen is giving out personal information; even when they think they know, they underestimate how often their teenagers give out their name, school name, phone number, e-mail/IM, and social information. For example, 34% of parents were not sure if their teen had given out the name of their school and 43% were sure that they had done so, while 74% of the teens stated that they had provided their school name.”

In other words, parents claim to be setting limits on how their kids use MySpace, but are not actually checking to see how they are using it. Which is very easy to do: most MySpace pages are open to the public, and it would be a very duplicitous child indeed who actually set up two MySpace profiles – one for parental consumption and one for friends.

My own daughter has a MySpace account, but uses it only occasionally to stay in touch with her American friends. Ross is far more active on Fotolog, and my readers already know that I keep close tabs on her there – not because I don’t trust her, but because it’s entertaining. I also have both a professional and personal interest in understanding how online social networking works and how people use it; Ross’ Fotolog is a handy case study that’s easy for me to follow because I actually know some of the people and their back stories.

Ross knows that I see almost immediately whatever she posts (one of Fotolog’s features is email alerts whenever a friend adds something to their Fotolog). Does this affect how she behaves there? She says: “No, but you and I have a weird relationship.” (She did once change a post on my advice; I thought it a bit harsh on one of her friends and that she might soon regret having said it.)

But I have talked to Ross a great deal about online reputation management, and the wisdom I’ve passed on (based on my own online experience as well as reading) does seem to inform her online behavior. She’ll do fine in the working world. (Unless she applies for a job at the Temperance Society…)

KidSpace: Public Places Where Kids Can Be Kids

If I believe what I read in the media (and some bloggers), American parents are getting hysterical about MySpace. For those not in the know (if you’re over 25 but don’t have a teenage child, that likely includes you), MySpace is an online community with tens of millions of members, most of them adolescents and (very) young adults. MySpace allows every member to maintain a personal blog, post photographs and videos, “share” music (only music already on the MySpace system – it works very well as marketing for little-known bands), and be “friends” with anybody who will agree to be listed as your friend.

Young people seem to use MySpace primarily to communicate by leaving photos and comments on each other’s blogs. Bands and, increasingly, filmmakers, use it to promote themselves to the lucrative youth audience.

As is true with almost every Internet community, anyone can join anonymously or under a pseudonym, or even pretend to be someone else. In other words, it’s easy for a 50-year-old pervert to pretend to be a cute teenager (complete with fake photos) in order to pick up innocent young girls or boys. It’s also easy for a 13-year-old to pretend to be 16 (even with real photographs – the way kids are growing these days, who could tell?) and get herself in over her head with an older guy in a way that neither of them intended.

All this is possible, and no doubt happens; with so many members, you’re statistically bound to have a few really bad apples. Does this mean that MySpace is inherently evil and parents should forbid their kids to use it?

danah boyd, a PhD student at Berkeley and social media researcher at Yahoo, studies online phenomena and writes about her observations with wit and wisdom. She vigorously defends MySpace as one of the few public spaces in which American teenagers can hang out (at least virtually) without overt adult supervision.

I didn’t spend my adolescence in the US and am not raising an adolescent there now, so it had not occurred to me that American kids lacked such spaces in the real world. I figured that the Chock’lit Shoppe of the Archie comics had been replaced by fastfood joints, and/or that kids hang out at malls (and spend money – don’t mall merchants love this demographic?).

Apparently I was wrong. Some convenience stores are experimenting with a sonic device which emits a piercing whine that can be heard by adolescent ears but not by duller adult hearing – so it deters the kids from hanging around in front of the store, without disturbing adult customers. Some malls are also apparently breaking up and moving on idle gangs of teens caught just hanging out.

The kids have nowhere to go after school except home, where they remain alone, in contact with other human beings only via the Internet. Hence their need and desire for MySpace.

What a terribly sad picture of adolescent life. Kids need time to get to know each other and themselves in unsupervised contexts. They need to learn how to evaluate situations and people, without the constant presence of a parent telling them what’s good or bad. They need and deserve privacy.

Perhaps part of the reason Italian teenagers seem more mature than American ones is that Italy leaves real public space for them. An advantage of living in a smallish town in Italy is that it’s completely normal for kids 14 and up to hang out downtown, even into the wee hours of the morning (on weekends), and nobody worries about it. In Lecco, the main teen hangout is a pedestrians-only piazza in the heart of downtown, which is also the site of the bar/café favored by many teens.

This piazza is also usually crowded with people of every other age – adults, seniors, tourists, small kids in strollers or on tricycles. There are restaurants and shops and several bars (NB: Italian bars mostly serve coffee). So there’s always someone around to keep an eye on things, including adults who work there or whose homes overlook the piazza. The kids hanging out are not observed by their own parents (eww – that would be gross!), but are loosely in contact with and supervised by older people; the situation is safe for all concerned.

Given the difficulty of duplicating this in an American suburb, I agree with danah – let the kids have their MySpace! It’s sad that that’s all they have, but it’s better than nothing.


May 21, 2006

I was premature in assuming that “the Mosquito” had already been installed in the US – though it soon may be, since the device first came to public attention last November.

I first heard about it from Boing Boing, and here’s an accessible copy of the article they referred to.

Kids These Days: Italy’s Young People, and Their Manners

Lynn Truss, author of Eats Shoots and Leaves has a new rant out about how the world’s manners are going to pot, and her personal crusade to reverse this phenomenon. I totally sympathize.

I ride the schoolbus in the mornings. That is to say, I take the normal bus line that goes down the hill to Lecco’s railway station, but I happen to take the run that’s scheduled for the benefit of kids going to school. It’s a small bus, and fills up quickly.

Six to eight kids get on at the same stop I do. Even when the bus pulls up with its door right in front of me, they crowd in to get on before me and get seats. A couple of unfortunate older women who get on at later stops have no hope of getting seats, nor does it ever occur to the kids to offer them. A 10-year-old boy who gets on at a stop before mine routinely uses his backpack to hold a seat for a friend. One day an older woman got on, and I suggested to the boy that he give this seat to the lady. He just looked at me as if I was from Mars, and did not even answer. Perhaps his mommy told him not to speak to strangers. (I could have offered the lady my own seat, but she was quickly so hemmed in with backpacks that she probably preferred not to struggle through to it).

Another day he went so far as to reserve two seats. I gently suggested that it would be polite of him to offer one seat to the lady. He stared at me as if “good manners” was a novel concept. I asked him what his mother would think of him not offering a seat. He’s still young enough to respond to this sort of guilt trip so, reluctantly, he complied. He was too shy to tell the lady (she was standing by the door facing the other way), so I called her over and said: “This young gentleman would like to offer you a seat.” She and I smiled at each other complicitly. Later, after he got off, we shook our heads sadly together over the shocking behavior of today’s youth.

Older kids are harder to embarrass. One day, when I had had more than enough of the kids trying to climb in front of me, I spread my arms, blocked the door, and said jokingly (but firmly): “Let the old lady [meaning myself] get a seat.” An adolescent boy took exception to this, and afterwards Ross, when travelling alone, often heard him muttering imprecations about me when he thought she had her iPod on and couldn’t hear him (“That’s the daughter of that bitch…”). Ross told me about this; she was touchingly angry about it (I didn’t care), and considered whether to confront him, or maybe have her older friends beat him up.

No need for violence: Ross is quite scary enough all by herself. One day as we got on the bus together, she leaped on and grabbed a seat, right next to this boy. That was the last seat, so she offered it to me, and stood herself. I hadn’t even noticed the boy when Ross said to him, in a loud and dangerous voice: “Well, you’re sitting right next to my mother now. What are you going to do about it?” He just about sank into the floor. Perhaps that will have cured him of making rude remarks about people’s mothers. <smile>

Riding the Bus

Oct 4, 2006

I wrote last year about the irritations of riding the bus with the schoolkids in the morning. They haven’t learned any more manners this year. As always, they gather where they think the bus doors will be when it stops, then elbow each other to get in first. When I see the bus coming I move in that direction, but consider it beneath my dignity to blatantly step in front of them all – someone’s got to set an example of civilized manners. Once the door is open, I let those ahead of me in “line” board, politely but firmly block anyone else from cutting in front of me (provoking some mutters, which I pretend to ignore), and, when finally on the bus, I give the driver an eye-roll about the kids’ lack of manners.

Evidently he agrees with me. The other morning, the bus pulled up very carefully and stopped a meter short of its usual position – right in front of me. I assumed that this was just coincidence, but as I stepped onto the bus, rightfully before everybody, the driver gave me a complicit grin. I smiled sweetly back. We’d pulled one over on the kids for once.

International Manners

Jan 17, 2006

In response to the above, Rick Freeman wrote:

“We were in Bermuda some while ago, and perhaps the most memorable thing about the trip is the way people acted on the bus … it was beyond manners, more of a whole etiquette dance. Every time there was a stop, the people who sat checked to see who came in and how they ranked. Virtually everyone got up at some point and gave their seat to someone else (older, pregnant, etc.).

Not exactly the most interesting place I’ve visited, but certainly lots of people with good manners.”

In Loco Parentis: Supervising School Trips in Italy

I wrote earlier about the traditional gita scolastica (school trip) which Italian kids take every year throughout their school careers.

This year Ross’ class, along with another class, took a three-day trip to Arezzo (the town in Tuscany where Life is Beautiful was filmed), accompanied by their three favorite teachers. During the day they visited cultural and educational sites, such as a museum of diaries. The evenings, however, became a problem. They couldn’t stay in the hotel, because the hotel owners complained that they were noisy and disturbed other guests (what did they expect when they booked in 50 teenagers?!?). So the kids roamed the town until they found a bar they liked, where they settled in and had drinks. Yes, alcoholic ones.

This isn’t in the least surprising: 15-year-olds are routinely served alcohol in Italian bars, and most of them handle it maturely. But I was surprised when Ross told me that the teachers were with them, also drinking, and everyone got a bit tiddly. I was amused to contemplate the probable results had this happened in the US: arrests and lawsuits for the teachers, and a press siege of the town and the school, with interviews with outraged parents, church leaders, and (especially!) politicians, until some other tempest in a teacup came along to distract the media’s attention.

But it seems to me that the teachers did the right thing: they were with the kids every minute of the evening, on hand in case of trouble. Although most Italian teens aren’t interested in binge drinking, the presence of the teachers undoubtedly curbed anybody who might have been so inclined. Relaxing and enjoying together with the kids, however, their disciplinary presence was low-key, so none of the kids felt any need to sneak away and get into trouble elsewhere. Most of the kids’ parents would have done exactly the same, so the teachers were truly acting “in loco parentis.” It’s amazing how well society can work when you trust to common sense and civility instead of trying to legislate everything.

Meanwhile, America continues to go to the opposite extreme. Trying to drown out distracting noise at the office the other day, I thought I’d listen to some online radio, and chose KGSR, a cool station that John introduced me to in Austin. It was morning news time in Texas, no cure for my distraction problem, especially when the top news item was that the Texas state congress had just passed a law banning “sexually suggestive” cheerleading routines (is there any other kind?) in high schools, and authorizing the Texas Education Agency to “punish” schools that allow such. Many Texans are wondering why their legislature doesn’t concentrate on more urgent and important matters.

Texas does have a common-sense approach to kids and alcohol. Although the drinking age in Texas is 21, as in every other US state, kids can go anywhere and do anything WITH their parents. Ross was allowed to accompany me (and her uncle Ian) into a tapas bar in Austin, and was even given complimentary Valentine’s Day champagne, since I am obviously her mother, and I gave permission.

Helping Kids Stay Safe Online

A guy (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch) came to meet Rossella at the pre-vloggercon dinner. He teaches kids about computers, and had searched online for young videobloggers, finding Dylan Verdi, Ross, and some nine-year-old playing the piano.

The man wanted to ask Ross and me what we thought about the safety issues of kids in online video. This has also come up in the vlogging group lately, so I thought I’d share my own experience and perspectives on keeping kids safe online.

I’ve been working online since 1992, so Ross has grown up with the idea that computers are primarily tools for communication. Somewhere around age 11, she expressed an interest in trying it herself, specifically online chatting. I was happy to encourage this, in part to get her writing more in English. So I sniffed around and found, which seemed to a safe place to start. Discussions are moderated by adults, and the atmosphere is/was friendly and relaxed (disclaimer: though it seems to still operate in much the same way, I have not followed Kidlink closely in years, since Ross outgrew it, so I cannot absolutely vouch for it). I also had her go through a Yahoo tutorial on Internet safety for kids, with a quiz at the end, covering the basics such as “don’t give out your phone number or address, don’t tell what school you go to.”

In the early days, I was always aware of what Ross was up to on the computer: she had to use my home office computer, or the other one sitting right next to it, so she was literally right under my nose most of the time. She enjoyed chatting with kids all over the world on Kidlink. Later on, when she tried things like MTV chat sites, there were a couple of incidents that I didn’t like, e.g. she and her friends ganging up electronically on someone else and exchanging obscene comments. That wasn’t and isn’t her usual style.

I never attempted to filter what Ross could see. Although it’s easier to find disturbing material on the Internet than in real life, it ain’t exactly difficult in real life – just watch the news on any given evening. Kids are curious, especially about anything that seems forbidden; that’s part of growing up. The less a big mystery you make of it, the less fascinating it will seem to them, and the less they’ll go looking for it. Ross told me she has looked at some gross-out sites that her friends were talking about but, again, I don’t think it’s a habit. After the fact, all I could do was shrug and say, “Well, I hope it doesn’t give you nightmares.” (It didn’t – she has a far stronger stomach than I.)

As for protecting Ross from others’ evil intentions, the best defense for any kid is to know how to react wisely to whatever comes up. Early on in Kidlink days there was a possibility of her meeting a Romanian boy who was coming to Milan for a vacation with his parents. I agreed that we could all meet up in some public place (though it never quite came together).

Far worse was the real-life incident when some dirty old man muttered obscenities to her on the street on her way home from school. Then only 12 years old, Ross was shocked and frightened, but she kept her head: as soon as the light changed, she crossed the street to where a traffic cop was standing, and the nasty guy of course disappeared.

These days Ross mostly chats online with people she already knows from real life, but she’s aware that it’s possible to make entirely new friends online. I have done so many times in my long online career, a recent example being the videoblogging group that we both met face-to-face in New York.

Kids should be protected, but at some point they have to learn to judge for themselves: they need the opportunity to develop their own gut feelings about situations and people to avoid. Parents can talk things over with kids and help them evaluate, gently guiding them towards the day when they’ll have to do it for themselves anyway. So, for the Internet as for practically every other issue in child-raising, the best we can do is to accompany them into new adventures, and try to keep lines of communication open.

July, 2006

Note: Ross now has her own website, but she needs my help to manage it, so she’s more active on Fotolog.

2014: Ross has had her own website for quite some time, though I still do technical stuff for her from time to time.