Schoolboards: net dangers over-rated; bring social networks to school

August 7, 2007

Schoolboards: net dangers over-rated; bring social networks to schoolThe internet isn’t as dangerous as people think, and teachers should let students use social networks at school.

That’s the surprising new recommendation from the National School Boards Association — a not-for-profit organization representing 95,000 school board members — in a new study funded by Microsoft, News Corporation, and Verizon.

It warns that many fears about the internet are just overblown. “School district leaders seem to believe that negative experiences with social networking are more common than students and parents report,” the study reports. For example, more than half the districts think sharing personal information has been “a significant problem” in their schools — “yet only 3% of students say they’ve ever given out their email addresses, instant messaging screen names or other personal information to strangers.”

In fact, the Association and resesearchers at Grunwald Associates LLC surveyed 1,277 students online (between the ages of 9 and 17) — along with 1,039 parents, and 250 school district leaders “who make decisions on internet policy.” And the students reported big differences from the adults’ concerns. Only 20% said they’d seen “inappropriate” pictures on social networking sites in the last 3 months. (And only 11% of parents concur, even for the last 6 months.) Only 18% of the students said they’d seen “inappropriate” language, and just 7% reported they’d been “cyberbullied,” or asked about their personal identity on a social networking site.

Furthermore, the numbers got even smaller when the students were asked about more worrisome situations. Only 4% of the students said they’d ever had an online conversation that made them uncomfortable, and only 2% said an online stranger tried to meet them in person. In fact, after surveying 1,277 students, the researchers found exactly one who reported they’d actually met a person from the internet without their parents’ permission — and described this as “0.08 percent of all students.”

“Only a minority of students has had any kind of negative experience with social networking in the last three months,” the study concludes. “Even fewer parents report that their children have had a negative experience over a longer 6-month period.”

The researchers concluded that the vast majority of students “seem to be living by the online safety behaviors they learn at home and at school.” Many students even reported that they were using the social networks to discuss their schoolwork or other education-related topics.

Yet fear of safety for children continues to haunt policy — both at school boards and the national level. (In May, a Senate resolution was co-sponsored by Barack Obama and Joe Lieberman highlighting how dangerous they thought the internet could be.) The National School Boards Association found strict controls had taken hold at most schools over student internet access.

  • 84% of school districts have rules against online chatting in school
  • 81% have rules against instant messaging in school
  • 62% prohibit blogging or participating in online discussion boards at school.
  • 60% prohibit sending and receiving email in school
  • 52% prohibit any social networking sites in school

“Students and parents report fewer recent or current problems, such as cyberstalking, cyberbullying and unwelcome personal encounters than school fears and policies seem to imply,” the study notes.

In light of these findings, they’re recommending that school districts may want to “explore ways in which they could use social networking for educational purposes” — and reconsider some of their fears. It won’t be the first time educators have feared a new technology, the study warns. “Many schools initially banned or restricted Internet use, only to ease up when the educational value of the Internet became clear. The same is likely to be the case with social networking.

“Safety policies remain important, as does teaching students about online safety and responsible online expression — but student may learn these lessons better while they’re actually using social networking tools.”

Social networking may be advantageous to students — and there could already be a double standard at work. 37% of districts say at least 90% of their staff are participating in online communites of their own — related to education — and 59% of districts said that at least half were participating. “These findings indicate that educators find value in social networking,” the study notes, “and suggest that many already are comfortable and knowledgeable enough to use social networking for educational purposes with their students.”

In fact, 76% of parents expect social networking will improve their children’s reading and writing skills, or help them express themselves more clearly, according to the study, and parents and communities “expect schools to take advantage of potentially powerful educational tools, including new technology.”

“Clearly both district leaders and parents are open to believing that social networking could be such a tool — as long as there are reasonable parameters of use in place. Moreover, social networking is increasingly used as a communications and collaboration tool of choice in business and higher education. As such, it would be wise for schools, whose responsibility it is to prepare students to transition to adult life with the skills they need to succeed in both arenas, to reckon with it.”Ultimately what’s holding them back is a fear of the unknown, the report suggests. It urges school board members to explore social networks, for one simple reason.
“Many adults, including school board members, are like fish out of water when it comes to this new online lifestyle.”

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29 Responses to “Schoolboards: net dangers over-rated; bring social networks to school”

  1. Pete Carr:

    While the report is encouraging, and based in reality, 1,277 students polled is a very tiny percentage of overall users in the age group. However, as one involved in Internet safety, I concur that the problems are there, but have been portrayed as far worse, primarily for the benefit of sensationalist news programs.

    Most misconceptions regarding Internet safety came from bogus numbers, such as the 50,000 predators online myth that I dispelled last year in my news section.

    Online safety information is easily available, and with proper precautions, Internet communication can be used as another tool in the educators arsenal.

    The article did point out a root cause of the misconceptions, that most school board members are not very “Internet literate”. This is a time of transition, and those of us in the older generation are the ones most in need of an education into the social networking aspects of the Internet, in order to understand the positive contribution of the online culture in regards to education and collaboration between distance-challenged students.

    The Internet has opened a very big door to communication, and it is the schools that embrace and use the technology that will provide their students with the best possible education.

  2. Omar Miroslav:

    Study funded by one telco and two owners of social networks…

  3. Paul:

    Hmm…. self-reported data from kids…

    “So Billy, are you surfing for porn or are you doing your homework on the library computer?”

    I think Billy knows which answer will stop him from being able to surf for porn.

  4. Ole Juul:

    The biggest danger for children on the net is the poor language. Most sites, such as Slashdot or many “news” sites, do not use proper spelling nor grammar and because of that are inappropiate for someone who does not yet have linguistic confidence. The children are mostly able to discern the morally questionable content, but they cannot yet defend themselves against illiteracy. Pornography won’t hurt them, bad spelling will.

  5. Wayne:

    Until Congress repeals the filtering laws these sites will still need to be blocked to prevent liability issues for the districts. If more students were worried about their grades rather than their social lives, achievement would rise.

  6. Hults:

    I’m not entirely sure if Ole Juul is joking or not. I find the suggestion that “bad spelling” is the main reason not to allow children on the internet rather incredulous. By that argument, children shouldn’t be allowed to watch the majority of TV or listen to music or the radio, because of bad grammar and diction.

    Children pick up language and communication skills at an incredible rate. I don’t think reducing their exposure to “poor” spelling is necessarily going to improve their writing ability. The internet has a language of its own, and without wishing to appear too William Gibson or Bruce Bethke, it’s an important one to learn. The internet is a very important social interface, which we get more and more use out of as time goes by.

    And I would disagree – pornography can potentially harm, by leading into arousal disorders. Although on balance, I’d say internet pornography is far safer for kids than certain other vectors of the topic.

    In today’s western society I feel it should be up to the parents what the child views, but my view is a little sexual knowledge is a good thing.

    Besides, doesn’t anyone else remember being a kid? You’re curious.

    And on a related topic, I feel a major part of school is learning social skills. There’s no point neglecting one and letting the other fall off. There needs to be that balance. Grades alone won’t get you far.

  7. Chris:

    Wayne, has it ever occurred to you that performance drops because of these filters? I find myself looking for educational material online but the websites that have it are blocked because you can create a profile or some other political reason. I use social networking (myspace, facebook, even youtube) as a way of communication whether that be asking a question about what we had to do for homework, or what friends are doing over the weekend.

    Also, just to finish off the “If more students were worried about their grades rather than their social lives, achievement would rise.” statement you made, if they weren’t concentrating on their social lives, it would move on to other stuff like sports, poker, porn, etc… Block one and you open the door for others.

  8. Ole Juul:

    @ Hults:
    Yes, I was a little tongue in cheek… but not entirely. I do think there is a problem with children watching TV. In fact I think there is a problem with anybody watching TV… that is why you find me here, instead of “on the couch”. My main point however, is that the acceptance of “bad spelling” and errors in general is much too high in many places, and I feel that this is a more important subject for educators to tackle.
    We should try to expose children to good examples so that they can get a more balaced education. I feel they will figure much out by themselves eventually (most of us did in the past) if only there has been some good examples which they can follow when they are ready.
    Creative language is a good thing, I agree. I have actually spoken with William Gibson and he speaks very good english. He is, in fact a pleasure to hear because of his ability to communicate and ability to turn a good phrase. Much of the language which is evolving on the net is also good, I agree, but too much writing is so full of typographical errors and misspellings, that it is dificult to read. Of course it is “over the top” to keep children off the net because of that. I was thinking that doing so would be similar to keeping them off because of religious or sexual paranoia, which is what I think has been happening is some places.
    The internet is, I agree, an important social interface. This is one of the reasons that I think we should help children make good use of it. Modern adults have been through a number of communications fashions. We learnt to make community with letters, with CB or ham radio, with BBS groups, then e-mail, and so on. Social networking is now taking on other interesting forms, but still I think we have learnt some things which we owe it to our children to pass on.
    Regarding pornography, I actually agree completely with what you say. I just feel that people loose track of more important persuits when they get all bent out of shape about it. I guess that’s true of many things… even spelling.

  9. Cathy:

    Greetings from Australia. I thought things were a little more progressive in the US – I’m glad we are not alone as far as controls being imposed from above. Our students do use these social networking sites as soon as they get home – why is it that the bad stuff only occurs in school hours?

  10. Bev:

    The way the report says that the survey measured whether people were in danger of revealing personal information inappropriately (“just 7% reported they’d been “cyberbullied,” or asked about their personal identity on a social networking site”) does not account for people having personal information on their Facebook pages and, unknown to them because they do not realize the significance of the security settings, it being available to friends of friends. And so the occurrence is likely underestimated.

    Regardless, the problem always is that the people hyperventilating about online dangers (and the people who make policy decisions) are seldom actual users, and are thus unsullied by detailed knowledge of the software they are regulating/reporting about. That’s a proven recipe for excellent social policy (not).

  11. Al:

    There have been many TV specials on how blatant and common it is for would be child molesters to contact children and try to meet with them for illicit activities via social networking sites.

    This NSBA writer obviously has some other purpose than protecting children in mind.

  12. Bob Calder:

    @Hults & Ole
    Considering the most recent research on “Baby Einstein” it appears that even so-called educational entertainment harms acquisition of vocabulary.

    We should always be cautious of any study funded by the owners of Fox News, MySpace, and M$. Particularly when the Pew Foundation and MacArthur’s education websites offer such rich resources.

    Who among us thinks that half of their colleagues actively participate in occupation related-social network sites? If that were true, Marco Polo and ScienceNetLinks would be overflowing. They’re not. If it were true, one-to-one computing for students would be widely supported because teachers would be comfortable using computers for teaching. They’re not. If it were true, I wouldn’t have to sit through a computer orientation meeting every August and listen to people say, “I have it plugged into the telephone. Am I on the Internet?”

    Students’ results should be split between middle and high school. The behavior is DRASTICALLY different and the usage patterns are very different as well. Combining results from the two groups weakens any conclusions.

  13. Mark:

    Why would anyone afford this study a shred of credibility?

    It was partially funded by the owners of MySpace.

  14. Wesley Fryer:

    Mark: Why would would you completely reject this study out of hand because it “was partially funded by the owners of MySpace?” Should we reject any study that deals with computing that has any funding from Microsoft? The fact that a study is funded by organizations which may benefit directly or indirectly from its findings does not, in a prima facia sense, make the entire study and its conclusions worthless. I would encourage people to look at the actual methodologies, results, and conclusions of any study to determine if it is biased, clearly slanted, or unworthy of serious attention for another reason. Merely pointing to one of the funders as a social networking site and crying “foul” is taking a shallow view that risks ignoring new research findings which could shed new light on some important issues.

    The most common refrain we hear in the mainstream media when it comes to digital social networking technologies is “fear” and “death.” How many people running around screaming that the sky is falling because of youth engaging in digital social networking are using these technologies themselves? The popular perception is that by merely using IM, blogs, or other social networking technologies people are putting themselves at major risk for online sexual solicitations and other dangers. This perception is simply not supported by research (admittedly sparse at this point, but there is some) which has been done to date on these issues.

    Dean Shareski highlighted in June a key finding of the US Congressional Internet Caucus: It’s not participating in digital social networking that puts kids at risk, it’s when they choose to talk about SEX that they put themselves at risk. More on:

  15. See-ming Lee:

    Interesting / I have no comment to Elton John, however, I am very glad that the Internet is back to schools again.

    1. I believe that censorships in general create ignorance and more problems.

    2. The affirmative action cultivate people to think about the concept of races–a concept that I have not even considered when I grow up.

    3. Positive psychology–reward the good actions rather than penalize the bad actions–has been proven to be effective on kids (it also works on dogs, as I’ve discovered)

    What is additionally interesting is how this study is funded by three players who have invested heavily on Internet technologies: Microsoft, News Corporation, and Verizon.


  16. Pope George Ringo:

    “There have been many TV specials on how blatant and common it is for would be child molesters to contact children and try to meet with them for illicit activities via social networking sites”

    But none on other ways this happens, and always has happened, even before the net? Let’s ban bus stations, shopping malls and several large religious institutions.

  17. lydia kelly:

    pretty tasty =] =] =]

  18. bestmusi:

  19. Worlds Greatest Networker:

    Interesting study – nothing wrong with kids being socially adapt and learning at the same time.

    Gordon Moss

  20. Beth:

    Being a school administrator myself, I see why district’s are afraid of this technology. I also am a mother of a 15 yr. old and 8 yr. old and know that social networking is huge right now and what better way to keep what your kids are doing in check but by being on the network yourself and using the tool for what it is: an outlet for communication.

    With your child, a teacher, a community etc… Yes, you take the bad with the good but if you pay attention to what is going on in your child’s life and get involved you can be plugged in too. I have a My Space page and also Facebook.

    Who the study is funded by makes little difference, anyone who has kids in school knows that the numbers are there and it is worth looking into if you want to know what your kids are doing. Our public school district is working on creating a network of our own that parents, kids and teachers can all use and communicate better and for education purposes and to obtain feedback on issues and get the word out to the general community. I am excited to be involved with the project. How great would it be to have a school sponsored social network that can be a tool for learning and dialogue? There is good and bad with everything and just like before the net we had other arenas for the bottom dwellers of the world, the net has them too and that is why parents need to accept that they need to just PAY ATTENTION and listen to their children.

  21. ramzesramz:

    Somehow time I climbed on is not present and, asking questions, found interesting and not so interesting answers. One of which was – « FailureAccident on the Chernobyl atomic power station, 4 power unit ». I became interesting and thumbing through sites was simply horrified. One I the fellow worker, in the past the meter man, has told about the friend which was the liquidator of consequences of this failureaccident, the truth or not I do not know. But spoke that – « firemen which extinguished a fire there, by turns washed in a showersoul groups, and muzhiks because of an irradiation were shone in darkness, but to live ithim remains few hours ».

  22. Bob:

    I totally agree, great post!

    Keep up the good work.

    Grtz, Bob

  23. Anonymous:

    I think that social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook are a good idea for school. People can discuss topics for class and ask questions which can get answered. These sites also give people the freedom to be creative. As long as they don’t abuse the blogging sites, then it should be okay.

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