Memo to Facebook: Face up to security responsibilities

Young Facebook users still need protection while online.

The Queen of England is now on Facebook–as if the increasingly popular social network needed that extra endorsement to attract users.

After The Social Network (the movie) and the 500 millionth customer signed up for an account, what more is left for Facebook to do? Grant Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg an honorary knighthood? Sir Mark Zuckerberg—that doesn’t sound too bad.

But before Sir Mark gets too heady with his fortune and fame, maybe it is time for Facebook and its staff to spend a little more time understanding what may be the most neglected part of its enormous customer base: young people, and more specifically, those between ages 13 and 18, and the online safety practices around them.

The issues surrounding Facebook privacy recently came to prominence with a class action lawsuit filed by two Los Angeles county teenagers who claimed that their privacy as minors was violated when Facebook, using the “Like” widget, effectively allowed advertisers to purchase their names and images without parental permission. (See “Teens sue Facebook over Like button.”)

The lawsuit highlights a long-simmering question as to whether the social network needs to attend more to its social responsibilities to minors, who flock to the site in the millions, rather than speeding towards the billionth member benchmark.

It is an open question whether the Californian litigation will lead to another round of bad publicity for Facebook, but it will surely help to raise awareness more broadly about online safety and the dangers for minors, such as their tendency to “overshare” information on the internet without a full understanding of the consequences of doing so.

It also will help move the debate about what controls Facebook should exercise to safeguard children not just from sexual predators and bullies, but also from the perils, including future perils and repercussions, which children face due to their daily web behaviors.

The risk for children is far more serious than for adults, who are in general better prepared to deal with the consequences of their actions. Children risk their entire futures through the mistake of one lewd photo or irreverent remark.

And we know that what goes on the internet stays on the internet in some shape or form, ready for the future employer or college to see. For example:
•    Thirty-five percent of hiring managers use Google to conduct online background checks on job candidates, and 23 percent look people up on social networking sites, according to a survey from privacy think tank Ponemon Institute. About one-third of those web searches lead to rejections, according to the survey, with new college graduates—among the most active social networkers–most likely to be the target of web research.
•    Sixty-six percent of Generation Y respondents, those in their late teens and 20s, were not aware that the information they put online can be factored into hiring decisions. Fifty-six percent said they think the practice is unfair, according to a study by Adecco, a work force consulting firm.
•    Ten percent of admissions officers acknowledged looking at social networking sites to evaluate applicants. Thirty-eight percent of those surveyed said that what they saw “negatively affected” their views of the applicant, according to a survey by test prep company Kaplan.

It would be beneficial if the debate focuses on online safety and whose must protect minors and when written rules will enforce these protection efforts. Many will argue forcefully it is a parent’s job. But how does society address that issue when, according to one UK study, one out of six parents did not even know their kids have social networking accounts?
Many parents who want to stay involved with their children’s lives do not understand the attraction of social networks–and the recent introduction of the smart phone gives parents fewer ways of stopping their child’s behavior, other than taking the phone away from them altogether.

Both parents and teachers (the next line of defense)—often lack the knowledge when it comes to complex privacy filters on Facebook. They aren’t always sure how these filters actually work and how to guide children in what is “cool” versus what is borderline risky behavior.

Our belief is that, just as with tobacco and alcohol companies that have profited from the powerful tendency of young people to want to conform to social norms that invite abuse, Facebook and other social networking companies should step up to the plate and provide for an education fund that would help teach young people how to best manage these tools.

Funds would be allocated to states based on the proportion of estimated 13 to 18 year-olds using social networking sites.  The money would  pay for youth training that would build a cohort of youth volunteers in every state, who would compete to participate in summer training camps testing their internet savvy on digital literacy tests. Students also could qualify as certified trainers and lead workshops for middle and high school students in their districts.

Similarly, universities and colleges would compete to provide professional development workshops for teachers, concerning how they might safely and effectively integrate social networking in their curriculum and how to provide guidance for parents and students.

We should not make social networking into an evil–it is clearly meeting a lot of needs, and it could even be argued that social networks now are becoming a primary means by which young people develop a part of their social identity as they interact with their peer group and as they define themselves in terms of their likes and dislikes, their comments, photographs, and more.

These places for experiment and self-discovery are culturally important, as well as psychologically important, and it is obvious that banning social networking sites or building up exaggerated fears is not only inappropriate, but will backfire.

Students need clear guidelines concerning responsible internet use, and they are ready to listen to that message from peers they trust–peers who both understand from a personal standpoint the role these sites play in young people’s lives and can give them appropriate examples of safe use.

Laurence Peters is vice president of CyberLearning, and Barry Mansfield is director of education of CyberSmart!

Laura Ascione

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