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What Kids Reveal Online

Binchotan figures

Yesterday, a friend asked me to check out her eldest daughter’s Xanga site, to look for privacy or security problems. The teenager hadn’t posted anything compromising her identity. But her friends were another matter. Many of the teenagers revealed quite a bit of personal information, such as IM handles, that could be misused by predators.

I spent a goodly chunk of the last two days navigating Xanga blogrings, seeing what kind of stuff kids post and investigating how much personal information that they reveal. What I discovered deeply disturbed me, and I really wonder how many parents are totally clueless about what kids do on these social networking sites.

My response is to write two related posts, this first one offering background on kids’ online behavior and some of what I saw on Xanga. The second will explain what precautions parents should take with respect to their kids’ online behavior.

Unfortunately, this is my second attempt at post number one and it’s nowhere as good as my first effort. I had written more than half of the post, but hadn’t saved a draft copy to the blog server, when one of these kids’ Xanga sites locked up my browser. I lost hours work, and will never be able to exactly recreate what had been written. I consider the fiasco to be interference. If there is evil in the world, it’s working on these kids. I don’t see lost writing and wasted hours as coincidence.

Your House is the Mall
Few parents really understand how significant a role the Web plays in how their kids socialize. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, 86 percent of kids 8 to 18 report having access to an in-home computer; 35 percent have computers in their bedrooms, which may not be closely monitored by parents.

According to a December 12, 2005, Business Week story, “The MySpace Generation“: “Fully 87 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds use the Internet, vs. two-thirds of adults, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.”

Overall, kids tend to multitask, simultaneously conducting media and communications tasks, such as watching TV while using the Internet, or talking on the phone while instant messaging. It’s not unusual for my 11 year-old to simultaneously IM and Webcam or IM and chat on her cell phone.

More importantly, the Internet plays a central role in how kids socialize. According to the Business Week story, “Computer use for activities such as social networking…has soared nearly threefold since 2000, to 1 hour and 22 minutes a day on average.” The kids hang out as easily online as the mall, with IM being one major activity.

Interconnected Chains
But social networking is much bigger than IM, particularly with the soaring popularity of sites like MySpace or Xanga, which mix various online activities, such as blogging, sharing music or playing games. Among those activities, blogging is a growing phenomenon, but with unique appeal for kids. Blogs provide online journals, where kids can express their character through how they chose to skin their space or by what they post there.

In many ways, the blogs replace lock-and-key diaries with a more public journal, although I question how many kids really understand how public are the posts. Even mom and dad can read them. More disturbing, on their blogs, kids can express themselves with great disregard for the potential consequences of what they reveal. Those consequences could range from publicly injuring someone’s feelings to revealing personal information exploitable by predators. Blogging is just one part of social networking, while significant, nonetheless.

Social networking sites truly test the concept called “six degrees of separation,” which Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy proposed in the 1929 short story “Chains.” The concept proposes that no two people are separated by more than five intermediaries, which works out to six degrees of separation. Columbia University’s “Small World Project” seeks to test the theory.

Social networking sites seek to even reduce the number of degrees of separation by making it easy for people to create communities extended from people they know or around commonalities, such as hobbies and other interests.

Blogrings of Separation
My exploration of Xanga focused on blogrings, which are groups of subscribers formed for just about any reason. I found an odd assortment of blogrings with shared members extending out from my friend’s daughter. Many of the blogrings formed around similar religious or philosophical beliefs, such as sexual abstinence before marriage, or mundane common interests like watching anime. In my exploration of more than 100 blogrings, many selected randomly rather than extended from interconnected chains, the majority of participants were teens. Among my friend’s daughter’s blogring friends, the majority disclosed too much personal information. Worst: Posting IM handles.

Parents sometimes ask me about chat rooms and instant messaging, about which there is much confusion. They aren’t the same. Chat rooms are open areas on Websites or online services where anyone can enter. IM is more like your home, where you invite people to come in. Chat rooms are like public places where almost anyone can enter. I would discourage every parent from letting kids use chat rooms, for they are notorious sexual predator hangouts. I usually recommend IM, because people typically only chat with people that they know. IM is very different from a chat room.

But kids disclosing IM handles changes the situation. Remember, most of these blogs are public. Anyone, not just the kids’ friends, can look at them. The blogger’s profile–where an IM handle often is revealed–are publicly accessible, too. A kid could post his or her phone number on a school bulletin board for a friend, but anyone could see it. Posting an IM hand in a publicly available profile is similar. Kids don’t often think about the consequences. And why should they? Human beings crave free communication and socialization. Parents, however, should think about the consequences and seek to protect their kids.

Concern: I really see nothing to prevent predators from joining a blogring, pretending to be, say, a 13-year-old girl. More disturbing the predator could directly IM kids. December 19, 2005 New York Times story, “Through His Webcam, a Boy Joins a Sordid Online World,” tells of what can happen to kids that go wrong online. As a parent, I was disturbed to realize that kids aren’t the only ones networking online. Predators also socialize online, passing around information about potential victims.

Parents Shouldn’t be Clueless
I’m not suggesting that parents should restrict kids from using social networking sites. But there should be oversight. And kids should never reveal identifying information or ways they can be reached, like IM handles or cell phone numbers. Sites like Xanga do offer layers of protection. Kids can form social groups with some restricted access to outsiders. Information is public to invited participants, but to no others (by the way, parents, make sure you have access).

Parents also need to better monitor what these kids are doing on social networking sites. I checked out one Xanga blogring today promoting the use of alcohol. All the participants were teenagers, many in eighth or ninth grade. One 14-year-old boy’s Xanga blog had a Care Bear with the words “potty head” across the belly; the boy participated in the pro-alcohol blogring.

In my next post, I will offer suggestions on how parents can protect their kids, while still allowing them to socialize online. Also, I will discuss ways parents can help protect the computers their kids use from viruses and spyware infections, which present different risks.

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