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Cyber Citizenship Part 2: Increasing Teens Cyber Awareness

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

If your kids are going to be good cyber citizens, they should be informed about the different areas that make up their cyber world.  This includes their personal information (i.e., identity), traces of their online presence (i.e., footprint), the various kinds of creative products that belongs to them and to other people (i.e., property) and the various ways to relate to and interact with other people (i.e., relationships).

Cyber Identity.  There are a range of ways your kid can be identified and recognized online.  It starts with the online names they use for various accounts as well as their online addresses (e.g., email, texting number, social media account, etc.).  Then, there are the more traditional forms of identity such as name, home town, school they attend, home address, or phone number.  Your kid may also be identified by their date of birth and social security number.  Each computer or device that accesses the internet or cellular network has a unique IP address that can be used to identify that device (and potentially the user of that device).  Finally, your kid may also establish a cyber identity through credit and debit card numbers used to make online purchases.

Cyber Footprint.  Every time your kid goes online or transmits anything over a cellular network, they leave a trace of that activity.  This is known as a cyber footprint.  There are generally two kinds of cyber footprints.  The first is an intentional footprint; things they have knowingly posted or entered online.  Consider this something like putting your shoe prints in wet cement that dries into a permanent trail.  Intentional footprints include things like

  • Photos
  • Videos (e.g., Youtube, Vimeo, Vine, Skype, Facetime)
  • Texting
  • Social media accounts (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Chatroulette, blogs like Tumblr)
  • Comments posted on other sites
  • Emails
  • Tagged photos on other user accounts
  • Apps (e.g., Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram)
  • Purchases and other transactions

Then, there are unintentional footprints your kids leave in cyber space.  This is more like stepping in mud and then unknowingly tracking it through the house upon your return.  Unintentional footprints include such things as cookies, search engine metrics and social media tracking. It is pretty surprising (and unnerving) how easily someone could follow your muddy footprints.

Cyber Property.  Anything that is posted online automatically becomes the copyright protected product of the creator.  This includes music, photos, videos and written material.  The creator of these products doesn’t have to formally register it with the US Office of Copyrights or with the United States Patent and Trademarks Office.  Use of these products, particularly for monetary gain, requires permission of the copyright owner.

Cyber Relationships.  The internet was conceived and originally designed to facilitate communication between people separated by great distances.  This original purpose has not expanded beyond what anyone could easily have imagined.  Billions of people can contact any of the other billions of people who are online.  This has led to the development of unique relationships that occur in the cyber world.  The main categories of cyber relationships to review with your teenagers are friendships, sexually intimate communications and relational aggression.

Online Friendships.  The cyber world provides an avenue for kids to develop and maintain friendships with the people they know in person.  But it has also opened up an entirely new world of social relationships.  The traditional definition of a friend has become much more complex and nuanced.  All social media accounts have some way to add “friends” (i.e., any random person who is allowed access to the information, observations and comments posted on the account).  It is a strange challenge for 21st century parents to help their kids recognize the difference between friends (i.e., people who follow their cyber presence) and friends (i.e., people with whom they have an emotional connection and share a mutually supportive relationship).  Some of these actual friendships may only exist online, i.e., ifriends.  Think of these as new fangled pen pals who have instant access to your kid, no filters or delays in the establishment or connection between them and no real way of verifying anything about the person on the other end of the exchange.  Another version of ifriends occurs among online video game team members for online role playing games.  While these video game relationships are primarily practical and task oriented (e.g., working together to murder, maim and destroy) there is still a lot of socialization that occurs through and in between the cussing and insulting that goes on among members of the same team.

Sexually intimate online relationships.  The cyber world has also provided a new way for teens to be sexually intimate.  The form that has garnered the most attention these days is sexting; sending sexually explicit images to another person.  It is a way to express sexual interest and to feel sexy without all the discomfort and embarrassment of having the person be right next to you.  It is a way to seduce someone you don’t know very well.  (It also happens to be child pornography if the images are of a juvenile, even if the kid took the picture of themselves.  This topic was thoroughly covered in a 7 part series of columns that preceded this series.)

In addition to sexting, there is also what used to be called phone sex.  Kids can describe sexually explicit discussions about what they are doing, want to do or want the other person to do.  These can be sent by email, text, comments on websites or posts on blogs and social media accounts.

Relational aggression.  Finally, the internet and cellular networks can be used to express frustration, anger and cruelty to other people.  The most common form of relational aggression is represented by insensitive comments, crude and awkward remarks or attempts at playful humor.  The inability to read the nonverbal social cues when making or receiving playfully insulting or sarcastic remarks can result in misunderstandings about the real intent of the remarks or the reactions of the recipient.

Cyber communication can also be used to intentionally bully, intimidate, harass or threaten other people.  Through speaking directly online to another person or by using the social networks to speak about another person, the internet provides another forum for the age old attempts to be mean and cruel to another person.  It is also a means through which someone can act to harm another person by sending malicious programs to damage their hardware or software.  It is possible to steal content from someone’s computer that can be used to try to embarrass or humiliate them.  And, most disturbingly, it is possible to use technology to create false images and information that is then attributed to the target of the aggression (e.g., using editing software to insert images of a person in compromising or humiliating images or situations).

Most cyber citizens gradually become aware of these areas of the cyber world.  The sooner your kid knows about them, the sooner they can be a responsible member of this community.  The first order of business for kids is to know how to keep themselves safe in these areas.  Cyber safety will be the focus of the next column in this series.

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