Facebook, Privacy, and Cyber bullying

Just returning from a full day of thinking and teaching starting with Saturday school and talking to some students who got in trouble for cyber bullying on Facebook. I love getting the opportunity to talk to students about their social world and continue to find it fascinating on their views of what they consider “their world”.

My wife, being the school counselor, had the job of teaching Saturday school today and together we came up with a plan that we hoped was A) Educational B) Not so fun….after all this is Saturday school.

I only had the opportunity to spend an hour with the students before I had to run off to teach the COETAIL grad course for teachers here at ISB.

I started the morning off by talking about privacy, having the students try and define it (harder than you might think) and then talk about what’s private on Facebook. Then helping them to understand that nothing is private on the Internet….nothing. I had them do some researching on the Internet and two students found sites that even talked about “How to hack a Facebook account and see peoples wall without being their friend.” (I refuse to link to the site). The students found that shocking, and the more we talked the more shocked they seemed to be. At the end of our little chat their assignment was to write either a blog post or a paper with at least three recent resources on either privacy on facebook or cyber bullying. Most students chose to write a paper as I think the idea of putting this on their blogs was a little…embarrassing….fair enough!

After I left, my wife took over and doing the counselor thing had them reflect even deeper about cyber bullying by putting them in small groups and reading some of the letters from this great book: Letters to a Bullied Girl . According to my wife their discussions about bullying were pretty deep and meaningful and many of them talked about how they had never thought about it before, but how easy it was to slip into being a bully on the Internet. They also took a look at the middle school Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) and had a conversation around what it meant and why some of the ideas in the AUP were there to begin with. The saddest part of the day for me looking back is why it it only our students who already got in trouble that are getting this message and are we doing enough to teach kids before they reach Saturday school? Something I’m taking with me Monday to work!

The real fascination for me came when I asked the students if they were friends with someone in real life could they not be friends with them on Facebook? You would have thought I was joking by the looks on their faces. Three students spoke up and all said the same thing….”No Way!” That there is a social obligation to be Facebook friends with someone if you are friends in real life and not “friending” them on Facebook would be the same as saying “we’re not friends”.

This is the lives of our students, a world where there is an obligation to be virtual friends with your real friends. An obligation to be on Facebook and be “cool” there as well. This is their social world, and middle schoolers are developmentally in a place that is all about fitting in, being social, and belonging. That’s what is important in their lives, not school, not their homework, but their social lives. As one middle school teacher I was talking to explained “No matter how engaging our lessons are we can not compete with their social lives, they are, at this age all about finding out who they are and belonging.”

At one point today, these students who were there to learn and reflect and were in trouble, were still caught chatting on Facebook in the background by my wife. Here are students, in trouble, writing papers on cyber bullying and still need? crave? want? that social connection.

There’s a part of me that feels sad for them….as I think back on my own Jr. High years and that sense of wanting to fit in, in being “normal” and how much more pressure must be on them in these virtual places that I for one never had to deal with. When I got home….I could relax, not think about it, but now there is this obligation that you’ll be on Facebook, that you’ll be social, even in your house…that’s a lot of pressure to “always be on” for a 13 year old…..honestly….one I’m glad I never had.

There is a social pressure within these students that I honestly do not thing any of us can understand. The more I watch, listen, and interact with students today the more I’m realizing this social pressure that is on them and wondering as an educational community how do we help them, when it is so foreign to all of us? How do we help them mange these connections, use them in powerful ways, and protect themselves and their friends all while allowing them to be social where they need to be? I’m struggling with this and I’m the one that’s suppose to have the answers for parents and teachers and schools on how to handle this. I’m just not sure that we as a society are ready to handle these new social norms that we really don’t understand and for many people are so scary, or foreign that it’s easy to pretend they don’t exist and say “I hate Facebook” then to approach it with an open mind and concept for what’s new.

Privacy, Safety, Bullying….it’s a whole new world out there that I’m trying hard to understand.