What Parents Should Know Part 1: Basic Understanding of Social Media & Digital Communications

Image of boys on bikes jumping over stack of social media logos.

Using Media is like Learning to Ride a Bike  (J. Hengstler, 2013)

Friday, May 24, 2013, I was on the Bill Good Show (CKNW 980, BC). (http://www.cknw.com/Episodes.aspx?PID=1116 in the 11:40-12:00 segment). In preparation, I thought more about what a parent or care giver should know about social media & digital communications. It fell into 3 broad categories:

  1. Basic understanding about the nature of social media & digital communications
  2. Potential risks and vulnerabilities when using them
  3. Advice for parents & care-givers

This post is Part 1. It addresses some “Basic Understandings”. Parts 2 & 3 will follow. (Be warned, I readily admit I’m still raising my own kids and shaping their use of technology, so you’ll have to check back for updates on Part 3!)

Understand Social Media is Not for “Free”, It’s a Trade

Nothing is free–despite what Facebook says–especially with social media. While the sites/services may not charge you, don’t be fooled. You are participating in a trade: your information and content for access to their services. This is something that many people–especially kids–don’t understand. If we understand that we’re entering a trade–we can try and strike a bargain we can all live with.

There are people somewhere writing code for those websites and services, running servers where all the information is stored, using up electricity water, space, etc. All those things must be paid for–and they are paid for when the service provider is able to take the information we provide and sell it to advertisers or other 3rd parties. Some services exploit their trade partners more than others. You can usually figure this out by which sites have been in the news for privacy issues, or just read it in the fine print of the site/service’s Terms of Service or End User License Agreements. If they lay claim to everything you post–with the rights to sell it at will to others, use it for advertising, etc.–keep your eyes open and be careful what you post there. Also, look at their privacy agreements:

  • Who gets access to your information?
  • Which pieces of information?
  • Will they sell it to third parties?
  • What happens if the service/site goes out of business–will your information be sold as an asset & how will it be protected if at all?

When an app or 3rd party add-on asks for access to your information, stop and think, “Does it REALLY need that information to provide the service to me?” If not, then it’s likely it really needs that information to collect your data and possibly sell it to pay for creating the app or add-on–and make a profit. Is it worth exposing your information for that service? Sometimes the answer is yes. For example, I let Google Maps know where I am so that I can get directions when I’m lost, but I don’t let my Camera app have my location data. In fact, I don’t let most of the services I use these days get my location data. Location data is a great marketing tool to target you for adds in your local area. Companies pay good money for it. Bad people like that kind of data too. Thieves, robbers, and pedophiles like it when your picture uploads are date and time stamped so they can figure out the best times and places to victimize you.

If you want to know more about the trade versus free perspective on social media, take a look at how Chris Hoofnagle (director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology’s information privacy programs and senior fellow at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic) is trying to get the United States FTC to level the playing field in it’s use of the word “free” for these services: http://www.law.berkeley.edu/15286.htm (Be prepared: article is not your average easy read and is pretty academic.)

Now that you know it’s a trade, protect your assets and deal with reputable sites/services–and make sure they keep their trade promises to you.

Understand the 5  Critical Characteristics

Social media and digital communications are:

  •  Persistent
    • What you commit to digitally, is basically there forever. For the not so technically literate, think of it as carved in stone.
    • All that you post online creates a digital footprint.
    • Who needs private investigators? With the amount of information we’re sharing online–our activities, interests, friends, family, locations, etc., the average person can find it in minutes!
  • Readily replicated & distributed
    • Anything you do/say online, can be copied thousands of times and sent around the work in a blink of an eye—and you thought bunnies could breed fast?
  • Always On
    • Move over New York. The World Wide Web in all its incarnations, is truly the “City that Never Sleeps.” With multitasking, we’re talking more than 24/7 and it’s virtually everywhere (pun intended).
  • Searchable

And we have

  • Limited Control
    • While you may be able to tame it, you are merely a lion tamer. You will never have full control, and one day the lion can turn on its keeper.
    • The only control your are assured of is your control of yourself, your behaviour, and what you capture digitally or put online. Control those and deprive anyone of ammunition.

Understand 5 Key Ways Digital Worlds are Different

(Note: the first 4 of these terms were taken from a reading–that I am trying to locate. Will source appropriately when I locate it. Abstraction as concept is from another reading–which again I have to locate. I’m feeling especially conscious of this, in the midst of a MOOC in online cheating where plagiarism is a bit component. Apologies.)

  • Context
    • When we talk to a group in the physical world, we can generally see who we’re talking to. That has all types of implications—like what we consider appropriate to share with that specific group.  In the online world, we may think we’re interacting in a specific context—but in reality, that context is much larger than we think, often extending to the entire world. People might think they’re in a “safe” and “closed” environment, but everything you do is just a cut & paste away from public  view. What you think only a few are seeing, might actually be seen by hundreds or thousands.
  • Appropriateness
    • As mentioned in context, when we’re talking to groups in the physical world we know what’s “OK” to share in terms of content, jokes, personal comments, etc. When we’re online, we may think we’re in a specific context—talking to a specific group—and determine what’s appropriate to share with them. Online we can have many unintended audiences, so we’d better tailor our “appropriateness” to Grandma, our next employer, our scholarship review team, etc. If it’s not OK for a future employer or Grandma to see/hear, don’t post it.
  • Distribution
    • In the paper based world, it took effort to make duplicates on a photocopier and then you’d have to mail them out, post them up around the neighbourhood, etc. In the digital world, all it takes is a post on a site to move out and replicate around the world.
    • Don’t trust “private” communications like direct or private messaging functions. They only stay private as long as the person receiving them likes you and is willing to keep them private.  Your “private” content is just an angry cut & paste away from being public.
  • Access
    • In the paper based world, it took effort to “find” things—records, comments, minutes from meetings, etc. In the digital world, just about everything is a URL (web address) away from you—and if you don’t find it, someone else will and share it with you. Search engines are constantly working to make sure every bit of data is as accessible to the world as possible.
  • Abstraction
    • When we communicate with people face to face, we get many clues—body posture, facial expressions, eye contact or lack thereof—that help us understand how our message is being received and processed. We know we are communicating with another human being. Most of the time, online communication lacks many of those clues. The person on the receiving end of the communication becomes a bit less “real”, distanced from us, and more of a concept. Because of this, there may be less consideration of how people will react or deal with our online activities. People can treat others differently than they would face-to-face–generally with a lot less empathy.

Understand that Age & Maturity Matter

It’s like learning to ride a bike.

Think of how your child learned to ride a bike. Likely s/he started on a tricycle–lots of balance, feet can touch the ground when seated, probably not straying too far from you. Fast forward to the first 2 wheeler–probably with training wheels (or for you more modern folk–with a low seat and pedals removed to coast). You probably had to put some time and effort in beside him or her–maybe holding the back of the seat to help with balance–until suddenly there s/he was pedaling away from you. Then it was an issue of where they were going, with whom, and for how long. Using social media and digital communications is a lot like that. I’m guessing you wouldn’t stick your kid on a two wheeled bike with pedals and no training wheels before s/he was ready. So don’t give them free range with social media and digital communications until they can show you they can act responsibly with them.

Part 2 to follow soon.

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