Give Kids Some Credit

This piece from CNN’s Schools of Thought blog on kids and facebook, in which the author notes that kids on facebook with increased parental involvement might not, in fact, be the end of the world, got me thinking more about this topic, which has been infiltrating the blogosphere this week…

One particular point stuck out to me:

Despite what some adults might think or read, teens, at least by their own account, are pretty responsible when it comes to social networking.

It was the last sentence of the piece, and I wish Stepp would have said more about this, because she’s right. Teens often get portrayed in the media as half-baked adults — immature, impulsive, and in need of policing and protection. And I’m not saying they’re not in need of protection, but I wonder what this protection should look like. In a conversation with one high school teacher in February, the teacher noted that kids are actually pretty darn smart when it comes to social networking and the self they “put out there” online. They do things like rhetorical analysis (though they might not call it that) when they read posts on blogs or facebook. They make choices about who to include in their social network of friends. I wonder if making these rhetorical, cognitive moves visible to students, and teaching them how to wield those thinking skills critically, might be the best way to protect them.

Sometimes, the choices kids make are poor ones. Hey, adults make poor decisions too, sometimes (I’ve sometimes regretted moves made online, and I’ve learned from those experiences). But just like today’s kids sometimes make dumb social moves online, yesterday’s kids sometimes made dumb social moves at school, on the playground, or at the mall (I know I did). And like yesterday’s kids, today’s kids should be able to learn from those mistakes, to move on from them, and to learn how to be more reflective, conscientious individuals in today’s digital age.

Why does panic set in when the playground suddenly goes digital? I think part of the fear stems from parents or teachers who worry about their ability to protect in a way that does not police, but instead teaches in these complex online environments. The parents of my metaphorical “yesterday” knew about the physical world in which their teens roamed, making their poor and positive decisions in the same spaces where parents had made their own mistakes. This Internet world is far more nebulous, far harder to control, and in some cases far less familiar to “today’s” parents and teachers. To make matters worse, we know the extreme ramifications that poor use of the Internet — for example, bullying — can have on kids. Stories have paraded across the news in the past few years; Dharun Ravi, for example, was recently sentenced to only 30 days’ punishment for his merciless online bullying of his roommate, Tyler Clementi.

I think these stories, far from being a call for further policing of kids’ use of the Internet, should be a call to action for those who work closely with children and teens. Policing isn’t working. As Clementi’s case shows, prosecuting doesn’t seem to be working either. Perhaps learning is the answer. Would love to hear readers’ thoughts on this.