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Why Parents Must Be On Top of Their Kids' Online Escapades

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As the mother of teenage boys and a marketing professional in the digital age, there is pressure on me to adopt the latest technology and advise others on its usage! I blog, tweet, have a Facebook page and maintain a LinkedIn profile. I am a relationship connector by nature, so am continually urging others (especially my age-peers) to "join the online conversation" in social media. Additionally, I encourage my teenage kids to go online, blog, tweet, etc., as well. The high school that my boys attend uses "smart boards," which communicate with the student's laptop computers. Each student sits in front of a laptop used for note-taking and research in real-time during class discussions. We are one wired family!

Recently, I went to a conference that made me rethink everything that I have ever written, said and advocated about the Internet. I had a visceral, emotional reaction to the information presented at the International Youth and Technology Forum on Digital Citizenship, hosted by The EastWest Institute's (EWI) Worldwide Cybersecurity Initiative and Columbia University. This conference was the brainchild of John Kluge, Jr., who runs the Digital Safety and Citizenship program for EWI. John is the son of John Kluge, the founder of Metromedia, a multibillion-dollar, early-on media empire. In his New York Times obituary from September 2010, John Kluge, Sr. is described as a man who "savored the chance to move into new areas of high technology. He had no patience for those he called 'self-important corporation types cut out of the same cookie cutter' who tended to stick to what was safe." Similarly, John Jr. attacks today's technology issues like cyber security with the same ferocity as his famous father. One of the "boldest" aspects of this conference was the platform that encouraged the raising of questions that often don't have good answers.

I was simply unprepared and stunned by the issues raised at this forum. While the entire program was impactful, let me highlight one of the panels that was particularly disturbing. As the mother of teen boys, I am "sheltered" from the particularly vicious angst that teenage girls feel about their self-image and their continual worry about how they look to boys. More often than not, I am reminding my boys to care for their appearance, whereas most girls are continually "maintaining themselves" and don't need to be reminded! Sites like Facebook, which allow and encourage engagement between teens, both through messaging and photos, fosters the ability to create a public image that may or may not reflect the in-person reality. Without boundaries and oversight, giving technology to teens is like putting a weapon in untrained hands. This conference and one panel in particular highlighted some of the dark side to being authentic and open via social media.

The panel was entitled "Child Testimony" and was facilitated by Margie Wang, Vice President of Finance Services and Technology for Girl Scouts of America. Girl Scouts themselves were the panelists. These girls were my own children's ages, and their voices were clear, impactful and authentic. Naturally, the conversation centered on Facebook and other types of social media. These girls put out the questions, "Why don't girls feel comfortable having an online persona that lines up with the real-life girl? Why is it that you must appear happy, confident, successful, beautiful, smart and successful in the 24/7 Facebook world? Why can't girls just be themselves?"

"Child Testimony" blew me away! They also discussed being literally addicted to Facebook and its social games, like Farmville. One honest Girl Scout panelist admitted to having called her mother at home during the school day to log onto her account and water her Farmville crops! Beyond this shock was another conversation led by Margie Wang. She brought up topics like "terms of service" and a teen's ability to understand what it means. And, generationally, most parents are neither tech- nor internet-savvy enough to appropriately and wisely advise their own kids on safe surfing. Margie wisely asked the audience whether it might be a better idea to have all privacy settings set to "block" as a default so that they must be consciously "unblocked." Teens are innocently posting pictures, private information and their locations while IT professionals are thinking of how best to "steal" and "link" and take advantage of the lack of sophistication in knowledge of privacy settings, cookies and the like! Girl Scouts need to learn about software cookies!

Bravo and a shout-out to John Kluge on a job well done! It is incumbent on us parents to take an active role in learning about technology and very closely monitoring the online escapades of our own children. There is tracking software available and more, but insist that you be Facebook friends with your own kids and engage in conversation with them about what may be questionable to post. Be proactive and look at what other kids are doing and saying. Be involved in your own family's social conversation, as it's happening now without you!