danah boyd on online parenting

Context, first: I work for Covenant Eyes in the marketing department. Our big product, for the unaware, is accountability software…basically, once a week, a self-selected accountability partner gets an e-mail with a report on your Internet activity. Originally, this was about calling out pornography, but we’ve been pushing to expand it to Internet dangers in general (i.e. bad use of time, bad interactions online, and bad content). The main goal of this is that you and your partner are supposed to talk about what you’ve been doing online. This is particularly useful for parents, especially of older kids, since it means that the kids can go and do their thing online but the parent can monitor it and engage in discussions about it.

So this post by danah boyd popped up in my RSS feed. Go read it – it’s short – but the gist is that a girl who is forbidden from using Facebook by her parents but uses it anyway has a therapist who (a) lets her use Facebook at her office and (b) actually talks about what she’s doing online.

Now, there are a few things to say about that. First, the girl should have obeyed her parents as long as she’s underage. I mean, it’s one of the 10 Commandments. Even if you don’t agree from the moral perspective, they still have years of experience (and theoretically wisdom) on the girl, and are looking out for her. Second, I don’t think the therapist should have allowed – and actively encouraged! – the girl’s disobedience, even in a controlled environment.

That being said, there’s a remarkable amount of good stuff to glean from such a short article:

  1. Parents (probably) shouldn’t forbid their kids from using social networks. danah rightly points out that such parents “don’t understand that they’re pushing their kids to choose between social status and parental obedience.” This girl chose disobedience, which I suspect contributed strongly to her depression.Now, no parent will ever be perfect – my own, for example, in trying to teach me to make wise food decisions, tightly controlled what I ate, and thus made food a bigger deal in my life than it should have been, which partially led to my overindulging and current weight problems. (I think they did an excellent job in most other areas, but fully admit I’m biased.)Point being: prohibition, especially of things other people do commonly (whether it be keeping candy around the house or going on Facebook), may actually encourage disobedience.
  2. Parents should talk to their kids about what they do online. The therapist is actually doing the parents’ job for them – “They have discussions around her photos and her friend’s status updates.” This is exactly what parenting is about (and what Covenant Eyes provides) – actually talking through decisions. “Is this photo appropriate for a profile pic? Why or why not?” “How much personal information should you share?” “What privacy settings do you have set up? How can we change those?”

The marketing professional in me says it’s now time to sell you on Covenant Eyes. However, since most of the people who I expect to read this aren’t parents (and since this is supposed to be my personal blog, not a corporate one), I’ll spare you the pitch and instead, close with danah’s final thought:

If you’re a parent, please think twice before you get all control-freak on your teen kids. They need space to engage with friends in a healthy manner. And regardless of how you grew up, that means the Internet today. Exclusion isn’t a solution.