Facebook, Families, and Futility

This week brings more news from the Freaked-Out-Parents file, wherein the Parent Teacher Association's national convention announces a new partnership with Facebook to teach children, parents, and teachers about how to avoid doing Bad Things, or having Bad Things done to you, online. The national PTA says it will reach out to 24,000 local PTAs with a goal of reaching every American public school to promote Internet safety, with a focus on cyber-bullying, online citizenship, and privacy issues.

Of course, it's all very well-intentioned: It's hard to imagine a malevolent move by the PTA, although I imagine there have been instances, and Facebook execs are continuing to try to burnish their public image on privacy and child safety -- belatedly, and perhaps a bit insincerely, but at least they're actually doing something, including a $1 million in-kind commitment and other promotional resources.

According to the PTA, may kids don't learn "online literacy" at school, which leaves a huge gap because many parents don't have the knowledge either. A report PTA Online Safety and Technology Working Group reads, in part: "Unless new media are used in schools and within families, youth are on their own in figuring out the ethics, social norms and civil behaviors that enable good citizenship in the online part of their media use and lives."

Still, if you think about what the PTA and Facebook are saying, it's kind of, well, naive. First of all, they readily admit that this is a pre-teen issue because parents aren't stopping children under the age of 13 from joining Facebook, in violation of the site's rules. However, as I have argued before, parents are probably don't stop their kids from joining Facebook because they can't, or at least are unwilling to invest the time and energy necessary to police their usage from home -- let alone from, say, a friend's computer. (Remember the kids whose parents never let them watch television? Remember how they always ended up watching TV at their friends' houses?) Of course, if you can't stop someone from joining the site, you can't really police anything they do there.

While the PTA's approach is more realistic -- accepting that children are going to be on the site, and trying to educate them about responsible online behaviors -- it seems to me it is equally unlikely to have any real impact. As the PTA notes, most parents and teachers will only have a general idea of the actual issues unless "new media are used in schools and within families." But even then, it's in the nature of intergenerational relations that kids will exclude their parents from the social scenes where the really important stuff -- like romance and conflict -- takes place. In other words, if a kid's parents or teacher have access to their Facebook profile, there's probably no danger... and it's probably not their real profile.

This kind of generational segregation is nothing new: no one likes to conduct their real emotional business in front of adults, and youth culture is continually separating itself from the adult world. Basically it's always been true that, for good or ill, "youth are on their own in figuring out the ethics, social norms and civil behaviors" in the new cultures they create. And there's little adults can do to change that.

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