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We have met the social media enemy, and it is us

Yesterday, Tony Orsini, my son’s middle school principal sent a blunt letter to all parents telling us that we should ban social networks for our middle school children. I was unsure whether it was acceptable for me to print the letter when I got it, but our New York CBS TV station had a headline today, “NJ Principal Asks Parents To Ban Social Networking” in which it printed the whole letter. You should read it for yourself (below). I respect Tony, but he’s wrong on this one.


UPDATED November 29, 2010: CBS took down the verbatim letter that Tony sent to all parents in April, but because I was a recipient, I am reprinting it here so people can judge the letter on its own merits instead of how I am quoting it.

Dear BF Community,
In 2002 when I arrived in Ridgewood Facebook did not exist, Youtube did not exist, and MySpace was barely in existence. Formspring (one of the newest internet scourges, a site meant simply to post cruel things about people anonymously) wasn’t even in someone’s mind.
In 2010 social networking sites have now become commonplace, and technology use by students is beyond prevalent.
It is time for every single member of the BF Community to take a stand!
There is absolutely no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site!
Let me repeat that – there is absolutely, positively no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site! None.
5 of the last 8 parents who we have informed that their child was posting inappropriate things on Facebook said their child did not have an account. Every single one of the students had an account.
3 Students yesterday told a guidance counselor that their parents told them to close their accounts when the parents learned they had an account. All three students told their parents it was closed. All three students still had an account after telling their parents it was closed.
Most students are part of more than one social networking site.
Please do the following: sit down with your child (and they are just children still) and tell them that they are not allowed to be a member of any social networking site. Today!
Let them know that you will at some point every week be checking their text messages online! You have the ability to do this through your cell phone provider.
Let them know that you will be installing Parental Control Software so you can tell every place they have visited online, and everything they have instant messaged or written to a friend. Don’t install it behind their back, but install it!
Over 90% of all homework does not require the internet, or even a computer. Do not allow them to have a computer in their room, there is no need.
Know that they can text others even if their phone doesn’t have texting capability, either through the computer or through their Ipod touch.
Have a central “docking station” preferably in your bedroom, where all electronics in the home get charged each night, especially anything with a cell or wifi capability (Remember when you were in high school and you would sneak the phone into your bedroom at midnight to talk to you girlfriend or boyfriend all night – now imagine what they can do with the technology in their rooms).
If your son or daughter is attacked through one of these sites or through texting – immediately go to the police! Insist that they investigate every situation. Also, contact the site and report the attack to the site – they have an obligation to suspend accounts or they are liable for what is
written.
We as a school can offer guidance and try to build up any student who has been injured by the social networking scourge, but please insist the authorities get involved.
For online gaming, do not allow them to have the interactive communication devices. If they want to play Call of Duty online with someone from Seattle, fine, they don’t need to talk to the person.
The threat to your son or daughter from online adult predators is insignificant compared to the damage that children at this age constantly and repeatedly do to one another through social networking sites or through text and picture messaging.
It is not hyperbole for me to write that the pain caused by social networking sites is beyond significant – it is psychologically detrimental and we will find out it will have significant long term effects, as well as all the horrible social effects it already creates.
I will be more than happy to take the blame off you as a parent if it is too difficult to have the students close their accounts, but it is time they all get closed and the texts always get checked.
I want to be clear, this email is not anti-technology, and we will continue to teach responsible technology practices to students. They are simply not psychologically ready for the damage that one mean person online can cause, and I don’t want any of our students to go through the unnecessary pain that too many of them have already experienced.
Some people advocate that the parents and the school should teach responsible social networking to students because these sites are part of the world in which we live.
I disagree, it is not worth the risk to your child to allow them the independence at this age to manage these sites on their own, not because they are not good kids or responsible, but because you cannot control the poor actions of anonymous others.
Learn as a family about cybersafety together at wiredsafety.org for your own knowledge. It is a great site. But then do everything I asked in this email – because there really is no reason a child needs to have one of these accounts.
Please take action in your on home today.
Sincerely,
Anthony Orsini
Principal
Benjamin Franklin Middle School
335 N. Van Dien Avenue
Ridgewood, NJ 07451
(201) 670-2780

END UPDATE
Before I comment on the letter, I want to tell you a little bit about its author, Tony Orsini. I can’t say that I know him very well, but all four of my kids attended his Ridgewood New Jersey middle school and he is a good principal. He is passionate about what’s right for his students, and I guarantee you that every word in his letter is built on what he believes is right.
I just think he is misguided on this one. And it is very understandable how that happens, because it happens to all of us when faced with new technology. Because the technology is the thing being injected into our otherwise settled equation, it feels right that the technology is the problem, when we are our own worst enemies. It’s not the technology. It’s us.
Think about it. Tony points out that Facebook and other social networks have become the newest venues for bullying, which is an incredibly serious problem. But the issue isn’t where the bullying is happening. The issue is the bullying. Let me make this point with a personal story.
Even though I am older than dirt, I was in sixth grade once myself. My family had moved from another state and I was “the new kid.” I was short and scrawny–a patsy. I was the easiest victim they’d ever seen, so the other boys in my grade bullied me for well over a year at every recess every school day.
One day, in seventh grade, I decided that I wasn’t going to subject myself to it anymore, so when everyone else went to play at recess, I just plopped myself down away from the other kids and did not move from there. A teacher who had apparently never noticed the bullying going one for months noticed me today and asked me what was wrong, so I told her. At that point, the school cracked down on the kids and my life got better.
Schools have changed a lot since I was 12. They now take bullying extremely seriously and no kid would go through what I did, because the kids are told that the adults care about this problem and that they can be approached. I never knew that anyone would care if I told them and the bullies had made it clear that that wasn’t my best strategy. So, I wasn’t intending to tell someone about my problem when I removed myself physically from the bullying. I had taken Tony’s solution. Instead of addressing the problem, I canceled my own recess.
So, I understand where Tony is coming from. If they are bullying you at recess, cancel recess. If they are bullying you in Facebook, cancel Facebook. But that was my solution as a 12-year-old. Fortunately, the adults, the teachers and other educators, have spent the last 40 years figuring out how to stop bullying without canceling recess. And as far as I can tell, it has been highly effective. The teachers try to monitor bullying behavior more than they once did, yes, but the main thing they do is to empower the victims of bullying by telling them what to do when it happens. And they also drill into kids from an early age that bullying is unacceptable. And it works. Without canceling recess.
The truth is that although Facebook seems like this brave new world to us oldsters (and in some ways it is), it doesn’t repeal the laws of human behavior. The problem is not bullying on Facebook. The problem is bullying. Forty years ago, many teachers said things like “boys will be boys” over this problem because they felt helpless about what they could do to stop it. It is understandable that we might feel a bit helpless about cyber-bullying now, but canceling Facebook is not the solution.
Instead, we must accept that bullying is unacceptable no matter where it happens. And we must accept that in the real world or the cyberworld, adults can’t always monitor what kids do. And we must accept that this technology will be used no matter what we want. At what age is Facebook OK? How do children learn how to act appropriately online? We must step up to teach them and we must emphasize that they are accountable for what they do online as well as everywhere else. And we must emphasize that we care what happens to them online, just as we do everywhere else. Canceling Facebook is just drawing a line that cannot hold.
Having said that, I have no issue with parents who want to follow Tony’s advice. That might be the right approach for your kid. But it can’t be right for every kid. There are plenty of mature eighth graders that can handle Facebook, just as there are probably some ninth graders that can’t. Each parent can make that decision based on their own kid. If Tony’s letter helps parents reclaim their confidence to make that decision, good. But if his letter just scares everyone into thinking that putting our heads in the sand will keep the cyber-bullies away, that would be a shame.
It’s easy to demonize Facebook for cyber-bullying. It’s harder to address the problem of student behavior, whether it happens online or off. But just as 40 years ago we ignored the problem offline, we have learned enough to know that we must confront bullying wherever it happens. On Facebook, too.
Thanks for raising the issue, Tony. I know it comes from a good heart. I just think we need to take a different approach.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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