Nameless, Faceless Children (Blogs and Internet Safety)

paperbagboyI hereby propose that all children wear bags over their heads any time they leave the privacy of their own home (and even within it if said home has a webcam, camera, video camera, or cell phone) and cease to be called by names, but rather by a hexidecimal code that rotates regularly by security token so no single child can ever be readily identified. This act shall be called the Child Real-life Act of Protection, otherwise known as CRAP.

That’s what we need to do right?  In order to protect children, they must be nameless and faceless in all areas of their lives- especially online!- otherwise they are at risk.  However, I think we need to realize that we put our children ‘at risk’ regularly.  Take a look at the following risky scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: Johnny has a recreational soccer game on Saturday morning for the 7 & 8 year old league, which was published in the newspaper.  His last name is on his jersey.  His parents and uncle cheer loudly from the sidelines “Go Johnny!”.  He holds a water bottle with his elementary school name and logo printed on it.  Oh, and by the way, his face is visible. (Personal Information Disclosed: child’s full name, school name, age, and image)
  • Scenario 2: Mom takes Sally to the grocery store.  While shopping for food, Mom talks with Sally about what to fix herself for snack and dinner the next night, since she’ll be home alone.  Mom warns her about being safe with the microwave, then answers a cell phone call from a friend.  Mom explains to the friend that she can’t help with the carnival at Noname Elementary because she’s been so busy with preparations for Sally’s birthday on Friday.  And yes, she can’t believe her daughter is going to be 10 years old! (Personal Information Disclosed: child’s name, school name, birthdate, image, and child’s personal plans to be home alone)
  • Scenario 3: Noname Elementary school holds a special activity.  The local newspaper arrives to take photographs, which they proudly display in their community events section.  Because they are a progressive paper, those photographs are posted to the newspaper’s website and Facebook page. (Personal Information Disclosed: child’s full name, image, grade level, and school name…. all published in print and through multiple web media sources.)

Here’s my question:  What exactly are we protecting them from?  Are we actually protecting them at all by making them feel like their web presence is anonymous? I would say that they primarily need protected from themselves… that they need help moderating their web presence until they understand the full ramifications of things they say online.  I don’t think that means they need to be anonymous.  I do think that anonymity tends to foster less responsible behavior, in both children and adults alike.

Personally, I believe that students are much more ‘at risk’ when the adults in their lives don’t think about what information they share locally.  The likelihood of an individual from Mozambique purchasing a $1,748 plane ticket to come stalk a child after reading his/her blog is almost non-existent, but the possibility of a predator in the area seeing a child and pursing them…. much more in the realm of possibility.  That’s why we register sex offenders here in the US and share that on sites like Family Watchdog.

And guess what… I hope you’re sitting down, because this is BIGelementary schools have children in attendance! Lots of children!!! Everyone knows where schools are located and the number of students enrolled because that is public information.  Anyone can sit on a public road outside a public school and view hundreds of children leaving on a regular schedule, many of whom walk home or ride their bike alone.  I just want to make sure we are keeping this safety issue in perspective- local threats are just that… threats.  Online threats related to student blogging, as long as students are not disclosing personal information like “I’m home alone after school and here’s my address” or utilizing chat rooms/messaging where they engage in cyberbullying, are really not a threat.  Especially given that any posts or comments can be moderated and also take place in a very large, public forum with a highly engaged group of educators.  Safety in numbers.

This evening, I sat with my 3rd grade son and helped him get his school blog started.  (Like I said here on Twitter, it’s good to have guinea pigs at home!)  We’re trucking right along in WordPress, picking out a theme, setting up widgets, and learning how to add links & post.  He opens his blog page, looks at the Firefox address bar, turns to me, and says “Mom, won’t people know who I am because of this?”  I was actually surprised, and thankful, to note that all my talk at home and at school in the Computer Lab about internet safety has affected him.  He was really concerned about it, and we talked about what it means for people around the world to know his first name, last initial, and his school name.  And obviously, because I have such an extensive web presence and our identities are somewhat linked via the school website, people will know his last name too. Not a problem. So…

Hello, world- meet my 3rd grade son, Caleb Cunningham!  He attends Berthoud Elementary School, and he’s taking responsibility for his own web presence/digital footprint…. with some help from Mom! 😀

I have to admit, I’ve been taught online privacy (rather than online transparency) a little too well, because even though I understand the risks are minimal, my gut churns just a little bit from ‘outing’ my child to the world.  (Oh, and I do have 3 other kiddos…. Matthew Cunningham, Emily Cunningham, and Abby Cunningham.  Just wanna be an equal-opportunity mom- never say I’m not fair!)

As for those brown paper bags, don’t you think they do a better job of carrying potatoes from the market than they do in protecting children’s identities?