Ramble: Adults hanging with Kids in Social Networks

My headline’s referring to “slang for how students feel creeped out by school teachers and college professors who are using Facebook and MySpace to interact with their students online,” the Dallas Morning News reports, adding that “the term derives from urban legends about sexual predators luring children into treehouses.” Of course that’s not fair to a lot of teachers who are in social-network sites to understand their students’ real, outside-of-school lives. In any case, there are now student Facebook groups on both sides of the question: “Teachers … please stop going on Facebook,” “Students should get over Teachers being on Facebook,” and “No … it’s not awkward being friends with my teachers on Facebook.” Check out the article to see what some principals says, as well as some examples of “Creepy Treehouse.” See also “Online student-teacher friendships can be tricky” at CNN..

NetFamilyNews

Okay… sigh.  As someone who has worked with kids – camp, classroom, field, and now in the online space, I honestly cannot agree with teachers and kids friending each other in social networks… UNLESS they’re educationally focused & completely fortified with protection for both parties.

Why does a teacher need to “understand” the outside lives of their students in a personal sense?

An adult individual should be able to go into Facebook/Myspace, etc… but as a person of their own identity & right.  Teachers keep their lives privy to themselves for specific safe reasons.  Students under the age of 18 (22 for that matter), do not have the development and growth necessary to be able to fully understand & judge situations like that.  A 17 year old doesn’t necessarily see “what’s wrong” with forming relationships with older people because they believe themselves to be MATURE, on the brink of adulthood.  Um. No.

Any social network that allows for private messaging/personal emailings?  To me that’s a BIG red flag for misunderstandings/inappropriate liaisons, and youthful assumptions.  Might as well be passing secret notes, or hanging out before & after school in each others’ car.  CREEPY. NO.

Do you see where I am going with this?

I’ve worked in various situations with kids of all ages, and yes – you do have some sort of Mr. Rogers fondness – in a completely genuine, looking-out-for-the-kid way… and even THAT connection can sometimes be mistaken or judged improper by others… and once that yellow flag has been raised regarding a person’s connection to a minor, then assumptions happen & trouble brews.

Side tangent: I get crankypants when people “jokingly” question Mr. Roger’s relationship to his audience – and the man was practically a saint.  Jokes? Sure… but jokes are always stemming from some sort of assumption/theory/truth, right?  And that’s just Mr. “I’m on television and not seeing your kids every day both online and in the classroom” Rogers.  But you know what?  It keeps happening… and the best bet is to remove yourself from situations like that.

There’s always Halmark-movie-worthy teachers who jump in and save the day for their student.  The working hero, that’s what teachers are in many cases.  I just don’t see how jumping into the peer-to-peer sphere of social networking sites can be in ANY way safe.  Sure, there’s always the case where teachers/parents/educators are trying to help kids by preventing bullying, or finding ways to empower youth – but there should be well documented practices and procedures.  And – even if a teacher is trying to “save” one of their wayward students by invading the net & friending that child… being a “maverick” is dangerous.  Document, document, document.  Back your shiznit up, yo.

Again, there is nothing wrong with an adult going into a social network site for their own personal life – with their adult friends & family, where they have various elements of their life HOPEFULLY on lock-down (with permissions).  But students & impressionable youth who spend their days looking to you as a role model/idealist educator/the law… they shouldn’t be invited to feel like they belong in your personal life as a peer & friend.  At least, that’s my opinion.

I remind my community dept team nigh-on daily that they cannot form connections to regular users on the site, or other research sites.  It’s just smart.  They have gone through rigorous training to be able to work on the net with adolescents.  They are aware of the situations, liabilities, issues, and problematic situations that can happen, and are taught out to avoid.  I’ve always encouraged my staff to talk, talk, talk about the stuff they see so that they don’t with-hold any happenings, and so they can laugh & talk as ADULTS and third-party entities… helping each other to recognize the fact that our audience = children, and not peers.  To help each other remember that we cannot play favorites from one user to another in situations, and to always be as removed & unbiased as possible.

Believe it or not, it can be slightly hard some times.  When you have the same ROCKSTAR users coming in daily, who help re-enforce community and provide awesome content… those kids, sure they rock.  But they’re also children and have bad days, or watch to occasionally push the limits.  Moderators have to stay as personally removed & unbiased as possible, otherwise issues start up.

That’s why it’s difficult to have known-moderators in virtual worlds.  Kids become attached, kids form friendship expectations.  Kids push for special treatment, and they demand acknowledgment.  They can identify you, and see how you are different from other mods – and then build personality around you, and help stoke fire of “drama”.

There’s a relatively new virtual world out there that I dig.  They’re doing some great & innovative things.  My main warning flag is their use of moderators.  It’s funny how much I’ve flipped from being someone who DEMANDS VISIBLE MODS to someone to someone who avoids that kind of liability.  Mods & mod staff should always be 24/7, and well maintained – and that accountability should be available in some form of communication to parents.  However, when you have live, visible mods – certain expectations come around from the users/audience.

The mods need to almost always be visible (“What? It says there isn’t a moderator on!).  Having one or two mods available also raises questions to parents about how many mods should be visible to them at ANY time (“What? Only 1 mod to these 40 kids? That doesn’t seem like a good ratio”).  There also comes questions of accountability (“If this mod is playing tag with the kids, who is watching the others?  Who is dealing with behavior reports?”).  Granted, some of my questions seem a bit advanced for parents to grasp from a community dept stance, but nonetheless – they will get asked sooner or later.  Not to mention, one of my researching mods already has formed opinions about that VW’s “game moderator.   She identified with him and was curious about him as a person, and not as a character-mod in the world.  As soon as she realized this, she saw the liability of becoming a live, roaming moderator, and what caution needs to come with the job.

Back in the days of TalkCity, there were always rumors of romance between moderators & peeps in the chat room.  At the time, the average age had to be around 15 (I was 19 at the time).  The good moderators who stayed out of the drama were VERY distant.  Kind to noobs, like a hostess/host, but then quiet and despondent to anything other than chat room inquiries.  Then there were the ones who become too “friendly” with the users, and who the users then depended on to lead conversations & roleplay & declare friends… Users always accused them of “playing favorites” (even when they weren’t), and reported mods who may have offended the game play if they didn’t play the way that user wanted them too.  These kinds of things can put your job in jeopardy, as well as raise yellow flags on your behavior as a responsible adult patrol moderating chat rooms of minors.

Basically – when it comes to online behavior & social networks, there are just TOO MANY sketchtastic variables that can put an adult in awkward situations, or worse – in real trouble, despite good (or bad) intentions.  For teachers especially – who are ALWAYS (bless them) in the cross-fire of high expectations, parents, school legislation, and the needs of our nation’s future… it’s just not a good idea.  AT all.

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  1. October 9, 2008 at 6:32 am

    Hmn…I think you just wrote your ‘moderator post’ for Shaping Youth without even trying, Izzy! Seriously, these are all points well taken. I see it in my work all the time where 4th graders try to ‘friend me’ on MySpace and such (yah, what are they doing there…what am *I* doing there?! etc.)

    It’s hard because in some ways, I think educators and advocates become surrogate ‘role models’ in some form…lonely kids seeking outreach for a mentor…which is just, well, sad in many ways. The yearning for someone to talk to that ‘gets them’…But I agree, my policy with ‘friending’ a child is FAR different than say, a millennial en route to adulthood that just wants to ‘keep in touch’ because they think you’re tapped into digital stuff they wanna know about!!

    Seriously…I get this a lot as HS teen advisory board kids turn collegiate and want to befriend on Facebook w/no regard for the fact that I’m privy to their escapades!

    That said, it’s totally innocent and not icky at all…nor is it weird for kids of peers (family friends) who ping me and ask to be my ‘friend’ on FB…I’m flattered, actually…that they’d give a rip about my work and what I have to say in the youth arena!

    That said, you make some HUGE moderator points on the drama Richter scale of what you’re positioning as potential ‘crushes’ in virtual worlds and youth gaming platforms…which is a whole ‘nuther thing, ya know?

    And…at risk of rambling…to your point, the teacher-student bit errs in liability issues in EXTREME capacity for adults. I’ve been AMAZED to hear kids gossip about coaches, teachers, and who said what to whom or patted so & so on the backside for a point, and other overblown observations that could easily get out of hand.

    Tonight, in fact, driving home from the volleyball game, one team member slammed another saying a certain coaches’ ‘Van’ looked like it was parked nearby and so he must be ‘waiting for her’ to get home and walk in the door…

    In other words, this projection was some twisted sort of American Beauty tale of tween girl fantasy which in reality could land some innocent guy in the slammer for being in the wrong place at the wrong time w/team-mate collusion of ‘intent’ that just isn’t there! In other words…imagination gone wild.

    As adults, it’s our job to observe, mitigate the drama, and squelch or discern with a cautious eye; not an easy task given the dramatic media interplay of the ‘he said, she said’ routine.

    whew. Was it this complicated when we were kids? Makes me wonder sometimes if life hasn’t turned into one big ‘reality show’ for kids, with cameras rolling and humans merely ‘on stage’ for amusement.

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