Tuesday, 9 April 2013

What Your Footprint Says About You: Responsible Social Networking

Poor Paris Brown. Her irresponsible use of Twitter has landed her in very hot water. Much of the reporting has made it appear that she was in post when she wrote the offending Twitter posts, so it took me some time and internet digging to discover that the poor girl wrote most of her "offensive" tweets between the ages of 14 and 16 - before she was appointed as Britain's first Youth Police and Crime Commissioner. So, why all the fuss? Don't teenagers do silly things a lot of the time? Come to think of it, there are plenty of adults out there doing much worse. Paris is in the esteemed company of businesses, MPs and celebrities who have had to hang their heads after posting irresponsibly.

Many are calling for her to be removed from her post, claiming her youth and inexperience make her unsuitable for the role. Others are using the situation to further denigrate the opinion of young people these days. We are supposed to consider all teenagers to be irresponsible and poor role models, merely because one girl has made some stupid mistakes. I know a lot of young people from my time as a teacher and a youth worker. The majority are intelligent, well-mannered, valuable members of society. It is wrong to tar them all with the same brush.

What I think this event highlights is the need for better education in the areas of technology and social media. Children and young people are taught about internet safety, about not revealing too many personal details or posting photos of themselves, but seemingly nothing about the power of their digital footprint. Future employers can search the internet for our past and make decisions based on what they discover. Have we failed our young people by providing them with all these tools - Twitter, Facebook, iPhones, Blackberries, etc. - and failing to give them the education they need to use them responsibly?

It seems that many people think that electronic communication removes the consequences and effects of what they have written. I'm not saying it to your face, so it can't hurt/offend/anger/upset you. But the truth is that the written word has, and always has had, power, wherever it is written. Where electronic communication makes it worse, is the immediacy of it, the ease of pressing enter or send before we've carefully thought through what we've written, and the ability to forget immediately about what we've just written.

I've witnessed people on Facebook writing things that they would never dream of saying or have the courage to say in person, in 'real' life. I've been offended by comments that might, perhaps, have caused a different reaction if they had been spoken instead, with the accompanying body language and facial expressions that emoticons just can't match up to. I've read attention seeking statuses; boredom induced antagonistic comments; statuses and comments being used as outlets for emotion.

At the end of the day, if people want to use their Facebook and Twitter accounts for these activities, it's up to them, and I am free to hide them from my newsfeed or to unfollow their tweeting. If it offends or irritates me, then perhaps it's my fault for reading it. There are easily 10 or 11 people on my friends list whose statuses I have chosen never to read again, though I still maintain a friendship with them. And there are several accounts on Twitter I have unfollowed after getting fed up of the constant barrage of tweets that annoyed or upset me. And some whom I no longer follow because they were just boring!

However, what I choose to read or not read is irrelevant really. We have a responsibility to teach our young people to use electronic communication and social media responsibly, sensibly and carefully.

I'm glad to be a part of the internet generation. I've been on the internet since 1999, so I know what I'm doing,
pretty much. It was part of my late teenage life. I spent much of my A-Level years on the internet, when I wasn't writing theology essays, reading Dickens or rehearsing plays. For my parents and grandparents, the internet arrived, obviously, when they were much older than me. It was a whole new technology, much harder for them to learn than for us youngsters. They have grasped it though, wholeheartedly, and network socially with the best of them. Many of their peers haven't been so open to the new technologies and opportunities for electronic communication and socialising. And on the other hand, we have children and young people for whom the internet has always been a part of their lives. There's nothing new about it. My 19 month old is adept at using an iPhone or iPad. Things it took me ages to learn, she can do intuitively. No doubt she will be surfing the net with ease, supervised of course, in a couple of years or so. She is fortunate to have computer and internet literate parents. We will be able to teach her how to use it safely, and with common sense. What the Paris Brown generation appear to have missed out on is parents and teachers who were able to teach them how and why to be responsible on the internet. Perhaps because they themselves are not proficient in these areas, whether through choice or fear or ignorance. Common sense is also something very lacking these days!

As a teacher, I was given e-safety training, and a part of that was encouragement to become proficient and involved in social networking. There is a definite split among teachers, with those who have seized the opportunity to learn something new, and those who refuse to enter into it. My opinion is on the side of involvment. How can I, as a teacher and as a parent, help, teach and support my pupils or children if I have no idea about what they are involved in? Cyber bullying happens; people receive abusive messages or inappropriate pictures. How can I assist young people in dealing with these situations if I don't know how the site they are on works? How can I model how to be responsible online, if I don't understand the online world, or refuse to be a part of that world in the first place? I consider it my responsibility to know what's going on before my daughter does, so that I can guide and teach her appropriately.

When we write on the internet, those things can be there forever. Even when we go back and delete it, a status can have been captured in a screenshot by someone else, forever to be circulated and remembered. HMV learnt this lesson, when their workers took over their Twitter account and told the world about their anger over being fired. I didn't see the original tweets, but screenshots of them were retweeted numerous times long after the originals had been deleted. A quick Google search can often drag up long forgotten posts and incriminating pictures that show a side to our character that we have left behind in our journey to maturity, but that can still cause problems for our futures.

My Rules of Thumb for Responsible Social Networking:
  • Humour doesn't always come across accurately in text.
  • If you wouldn't say it in person, don't write it.
  • The internet doesn't make you anonymous.
  • If you don't want people to know why you're sad/angry/happy, don't write that you are sad/angry/happy.
  • If you're bored, get off Facebook/Twitter/MySpace/Bebo, and read a book or go for a walk or get a hobby!
  • Don't swear.
  • Think about who can see your statuses/tweets, and who you want to see them, and set your privacy settings accordingly.
  • Don't write anything your grandmother would be shocked by.
  • Use your statuses, comments and photos to reveal the person you would like employers to see.
  • Before you write, THINK:
    • Is it TRUE?
    • Is it HELPFUL?
    • Is it INSPIRING?
    • Is it NECESSARY?
    • Is it KIND?
      • No? Then think twice before you write it. 
If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all.
Always sensible advice to follow!

Some useful links:

And another take on the situation:

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