Privileges, Privacy, and Protection of Youth Bloggers in the Social Studies Classroom

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1 Social Education 70(3), pg National Council for the Social Studies Connect with Technology Privileges, Privacy, and Protection of Youth Bloggers in the Social Studies Classroom Ilene R. Berson and Michael J. Berson Internet users continue to develop new ways of communicating online and disseminating information; one of these methods, the blog, also known as web log, has become a significant cultural phenomenon. Blogs offer an interactive medium for internet users to create and contribute content to the web. Initially introduced as online journals in the mid-1990s, user-friendly blogging software has made online publishing much more accessible and widespread. 1 The popularity of blogs evolved in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, as people sought new ways of exchanging information; the technology proliferated when users realized the power of blogging to reach a worldwide audience. Now even novice users can post material on web pages, comment on others sites, and establish links to a variety of blogs. Most blogs represent content in a journal format. Recent figures estimate that a new blog is created every second. 2 The blog phenomenon has impacted not only the nature of online communities, but also created new political and social spheres of influence. 3 Blogs may attempt to sway public opinion about political issues, share commentaries by professional and citizen journalists on major news events, or serve as social networking tools for young people. They range from the mundane to the outrageous. Some blogs have established reputations for accurate reporting and have a worldwide following, while others remain obscure and limited to a small, connected group of friends or associates. Regardless of their influence, blogs are a form of mass communication that augment existing dissemination strategies and facilitate online debate and dialogue. Youth Bloggers The blogosphere (or community of web logs) of young people primarily centers around social networking sites, such as MySpace, Xanga, and Facebook. Young people use this forum to publish their creative works, photos, stories, videos, comments, and other online content. These sites allow teens to express themselves, share their interests and passions, and get feedback from others. They facilitate connections with other students who share common interests and help maintain bonds within a peer group. As stipulated by the Children s Online Privacy Protection Act, most of these sites are open only to children aged 13 or older. 4 However, most sites do not use age verification tools, and there are many younger blog users who lie about their birthdates when setting up their own personal blogs. 5 Between March and August of 2005, the number of blogs nearly doubled in size, increasing from 7.8 million to 14.2 million. 6 Researchers from the Children s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University have reported that more than half of all blogs are run by 13- to 19-year-olds. 7 In a Pew Internet study, among the 21 million teenagers who use the internet, 57 percent have contributed content to the web, and 19 percent have created their own blog. 8 Nearly 40 percent read blogs with older adolescent girls being the most avid users of this forum. Most restrict their blog activities to a network of peers with whom they have prior association, and use interactive communication tools to enhance their social connection with friends. This allows teens to network with others, share their interests, and express their thoughts. They assemble galleries of friends, and the size of friends lists can be a status symbol among peers. Blogs in Education An increasing number of schools have integrated blogs into instruction to enhance communication and promote more engaged learning. Blogs are be- 124

2 ing used to keep parents informed of classroom activities, to engage students in reflective journaling, to enhance students summarizing and writing skills, and to promote safe, constructive blogging. 9 Teachers may post the day s activities, assignments, handouts, or class grades. Some school blogs include an interactive component in which teachers respond to questions from students. Students may also post entries about daily class activities, providing regular updates to keep parents informed. 10 These blogs promote a transparent classroom environment in which parents feel connected and involved in their child s education, and teachers enhance their responsiveness to students while fostering a sense of community. In some social studies classrooms, teachers are using blogs to supplement classroom instruction and facilitate discussion among students. Through classroom blogging, students can grow accustomed to sharing creative ideas, chronicling experiences, and articulating points of view. They can reflect on current events or interact with other students in distant schools to share views on a range of topics, such as racism, citizenship, poverty, and politics. Copies of Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents are displayed at the Apple Expo computer show in Paris, September 22, The Reporters Without Borders handbook is partly financed by the French government and includes technical advice on how to remain anonymous online. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena) Blogs have become valuable resources for the social studies classroom. 11 News service blogs, in particular, enrich regularly accessible print, radio, or television news coverage. There are also blog sites that relate to specific social studies content. For example, the American Presidents blog was created by Michael Lorenzen, a librarian at Central Michigan University, and explores interesting facts about Ameri- can presidents and the presidency. In a March 6, 2006 post, on Lorenzen highlights two entries from other blogs on Abraham Lincoln and George Washington: The first is Anniversary of Lincoln s first assassination attempt [collectingmythoughts.blogspot. com]. It is from 2005 and it is by Norma Bruce. It has information on Lincoln s first assassination attempt, which was foiled by a librarian who was his bodyguard. Got to love those hero librarians like William T. Coggeshall. The second is by elementa ryhistoryteacher. It is George, We Hardly Knew Ye! [historyiselementary.blogspot.com] It deals with how she teaches elementary school students about President Washington including dispelling myths about him. (What, no wooden teeth!) 12 Schools also serve as an organizing structure for youth bloggers whose content and profiles are often determined by school identification. Many blog spaces offer search functions that allow students to be located based on A p r i l

3 geographic region, school association, and age. Some schools have responded to the proliferation of blogging by prohibiting the use of blogs on school computers; 13 however, students are often adept at circumventing such bans, or they simply continue their blogging activities outside of school. Assorted Stuff.com, selected by eschool News as the Best Classroom Blog for Teachers, had a post in early March about the fear that increasingly exists around blogging: Fear of blogging has been a regular theme around here lately. The focus, unfortunately, has been on how nervous administrators and teachers are about the irresponsible posts created by students. Barbara Ganley, however, posts a wonderful and thoughtful look at fear from another angle [mt.middlebury.edu/middblogs/ganley/bgblogging/]. Over the past year I ve posted several entries on what student blogging means for the teacher the fear of change the fear of free-falling, of moving away from the known, of relinquishing control and of the impact on our time and the resulting pressure on how we train our teachers. It s one thing to talk about subjectcentered, collaborative-centered, connected learning (via blogs or not); it s another thing altogether to make it truly a reality in classrooms employing blogs in ways many edubloggers write about, including me. She pulls in the ideas of several others who are writing about blogging with students to create an essay that offers much to think about. This is an example of the kind of opportunity to network and discuss we should be offering our students. 14 Privacy and Protection Although blogging can be an enjoyable way to express oneself, the posting of stories, videos, and photos online can place individuals at risk for identity theft, stalking, harassment, and other privacy infringements. Teens commonly make the mistake of sharing personal information, such as their names, birthdays, school names, phone numbers, sports teams, or other private details. One of the features that makes blogs so attractive to young people is that individuals can share their intimate feelings in a context that offers the illusion of anonymity. 15 With the false sense of trust created in a digital environment, children can be more easily victimized by individuals who are savvy about young people s vulnerability and willingness to disclose personal and private reflections to an understanding stranger. Moreover, the teen blogosphere fosters disinhibition. 16 It is enticing for youth to have a place in which they can fully disclose their thoughts and personal information with perceived impunity. Emotionally vulnerable young people may engage in self destructive behavior, including sexual exploits, drug experimentation, and criminal activity, and share these dangerous escapades with their online social networks. In a free wheeling setting that seems to be devoid of rules and ripe for experimentation, some young people are oblivious to the reality that their communication is taking place in a public context. Postings, both text and photos, can spread far beyond their intended immediate circle, since blogs are part of a global and public forum. According to Pew study results, nearly 80 percent of teens believe that their peers engage in reckless behavior online. 17 Education officials have also expressed concern about blogs being used to abuse, harass, or disclose inappropriate material about teachers, staff, the school in general, or other students. Some schools have banned blogs to curtail bullying and inappropriate online communication that could have repercussions for the school. 18 However, even in these restricted settings, blogs can continue to be used as a tool by teachers to share information with parents and students. In addition to libelous information being published on blogs, disclosure of personal data can be extremely dangerous. 19 Predators locate young bloggers, establish relationships, and subsequently arrange face-to-face meetings. Alarm about child predators using personal information found in blogs has intensified after recent reports of teenage girls who were molested by men they met on social networking sites. 20 A predator can easily identify vulnerable young people and locate them with the phone numbers, school information, and photographs that are made readily available in these forums. In some cases, students disclose or even promote the use of alcohol, drugs, or other self-harming behaviors on their blogs. In some secondary schools around the country, students are facing disciplinary action after posting photos that capture underage alcohol consumption at parties. The police are also monitoring blogs to investigate cases, sometimes uncovering confessions of crimes as young people boast about their illicit activities. 21 Of course, as parents become increasingly savvy, they also can search out their child s blog postings. Students do not realize the repercussions. As they prepare to go on to the next stage of their lives, college recruiters and prospective employers may refer to these forums as part of routine background checks. Preparing Students for Safe Blogging Some teachers are embracing blogs as a learning tool. 22 These teachers use the opportunity blogs offer to teach about the safe and appropriate use of technol- 126

4 ogy. In social studies classrooms this can include exploring and debating the legal issues associated with student blogging. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has developed a Bloggers FAQ on student blogging that details students rights and responsibilities. The constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression is discussed in the context of school-hosted blogs, as well as personal blogs. The following EFF guidelines for avoiding situations that could result in disciplinary action could make discussion points: 23 Don t post anything that someone at school is likely to take as a direct physical threat against school staff or students. Don t advocate for the immediate violation of any laws or school rules. Review the Bloggers Legal Guide to understand your rights and make sure you aren t publishing anything illegal. Just as you have First Amendment rights like other bloggers, you re also subject to all the same legal responsibilities. Don t use any school resources to publish or view your blog. Don t encourage other students to read or post comments to your blog while at school tell them to wait until they are off campus. If you see comments on your blog posted by other students during school hours, consider deleting them. Make sure it s clear to readers that the blog isn t sponsored by or affiliated with the school. In order to create a more protective blogging experience, many teachers actively manage postings prior to publication on the web. Some educators choose to use password-protected blogs, therefore restricting access to a limited audience. Privacy protections, such as blogging under a pseudonym, using only the child s first name, or including just initials as an identifier, are other strategies to help students avoid the risk for victimization. Integrating cybersafety into the curriculum and offering training sessions to educate families and students on safeguards are also important strategies for protecting young people from embarrassment or harm. The following guidelines provide a framework for managing the challenges associated with young people and blogging: 24 The posting of personally identifiable information, including the full name, school name, sports teams, friends, hangouts, etc., should be avoided since even small clues can be linked to reveal the location of a young person online. Moreover, it is important for young people to know that their online activity is never truly anonymous, and law enforcement can work with Internet Service Providers and blog hosts to disclose the identity of users engaged in illegal activities. Blog postings are public, permanent, and available worldwide. Search tools like Google s Blogsearch can make it easy to access an individual s blogs, as well as blogs on any specified topic. Even deleted blog entries may become archived by individuals who have downloaded and saved the information on their hard drives, or through tools such as the Internet Wayback Machine. Therefore, young people should be encouraged to activate privacy preferences, use password-protected blogs, and restrict access to their blogs to their network of trusted friends and family. A blogger is responsible for the comments and material that appear in his or her blog. Therefore, threatening or offensive messages that could embarrass or be harmful to others should A p r i l be deleted. Photos also should be carefully selected so that the young person is not easily identifiable, and the photo should be a responsible and appropriate representation of the individual. Since anyone can download images from the web, photos could end up in anyone s possession. Blogs have to abide by copyright rules and regulations. Despite the overall challenges, blogs offer a medium in which students can engage with academic content, as well as advance their skills for constructing narratives, facilitating dialogue, and exchanging ideas with diverse groups of people. Simultaneously, blogs can be used as part of young people s self-discovery processes as they explore different personas or expand their friendship networks online. Social studies educators have the opportunity to support their students as they develop skills as citizens in a digital age. 25 By using this tool that gives young people the sense that their voice and opinions have value, the social studies can advance youth engagement, promote students capacity to challenge their own thinking as well as the thinking of others, and subsequently foster deeper and more meaningful interactions among our most active cybercitizens. Notes 1. Laura J. Gurak, Smiljana Antonijevic, Laurie Johnson, Clancy Ratliff, and Jessica Reyman, Introduction: Weblogs, Rhetoric, Community, and Culture, Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs, blog.lib.umn. edu/blogosphere/introduction.html [accessed November 20, 2005]. 2. Technorati, (www.technorati.com) is a search engine that tracks blog activity; as of March 2006, it counted 30 million blogs (60 times the number three years ago). Blogs are doubling about every 5.5 months, with about 75,000 new blogs appearing each day. 3. Chris Bowers and Matthew Stoller, Emergence of the Progressive Blogosphere: A New Force in American Politics (New Politics Institute: A Think Tank for Politics, 2005), [accessed December 15, 2005]. 4. See 5. MySpace and Facebook have created algorithms to identify underage users and eradicate their profiles. They also screen photos that are posted to safeguard against offensive content. Some organizations, such as epals Classroom Exchange and WiredKids, have

5 announced plans to develop kid-friendly blogging tools that limit use to young people and monitor for inappropriate content. 6. Gurak, et al. 7. David A. Huffaker and Sandra L. Calvert, Gender, Identity, and Language Use in Teenage Blogs, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 10, no. 2 (2005), article 1, jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue2/ huffaker.html. 8. Lee Rainie, The State of Blogging, Pew Internet and American Life Project (January 2005) www. pewinternet.org/ppf/r/144/report_display.asp. 9. Catherine Poling, Blog on: Building Communication and Collaboration among Staff and Students, Learning and Leading with Technology 32, no. 6 (March 2005): Profiles 2/22/06 4:27 PM Page Emily Anthes, Blogging Classroom Connects to Parents, (August 9, 2005), com/2005/08/09/tampabay/blogging_classroom_ co.shtml [accessed December 18, 2005]; Alorie Gilbert, Blogging 101-Web Logs go to School (October 17, 2005), news.com.com/blogging+101 Web+logs+go+to+school/ _ html [accessed December 15, 2005]; Larry Magid, Your Students are Blogging (N.D.), [accessed December 10, 2005]; Edward Moyer, Schoolhouse Blogs (October 17, 2005), news.com. com/schoolhouse+blogs/ _ html [accessed December 15, 2005]. 11. See www3.essdack.org/socialstudies/blogs.htm. 12. Michael Lorenzen, American Presidents Blog C e l e b r a t i n g 5 0 Ye a r s P R O F I L E S IN COURAGE John F. Kennedy Introduction by Caroline Kennedy 2006 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of John F. Kennedy s Pulitzer Prize winning classic now with a new Introduction by Caroline Kennedy. (January 2006), american-presidents.blogspot.com/ [accessed March 7, 2006]. 13. Amanda Paulson, Schools Grapple with Policing Students Online Journals (February 2, 2006), www. csmonitor.com/2006/0202/p01s04-stct.html [accessed February 15, 2006]. 14. Tim Stahmer, Fear Factor, March 6, 2006, AssortedStuff.com, [accessed March 7, 2006]. 15. Ilene R. Berson, Grooming Cybervictims: The Psychosocial Effects of Online Exploitation for Youth, Journal of School Violence 2, no. 1 (2003): Ibid. 17. Amanda Lenhart, Protecting Teens Online, Pew Internet and American Life Project, (March 17, 2005), 18. Electronic Frontier Foundation, Bloggers FAQ on Student Blogging, [accessed December 15, 2005]; Magid; Paulson. 19. Ilene R. Berson and Michael J. Berson, Children and Their Digital Dossiers: Lessons in Privacy Rights in the Digital Age, Enhancing Democracy with Technology in the Social Studies [special issue], International Journal of Social Education 21, no. 1 (2006): Associated Press, MySpace.com Subject of Sex Assault Probe, (February 3, 2006), abcnews.go. com/technology/wirestory?id= &cmp=otc- RSSFeeds0312&technology=true [accessed February 3, 2006]. 21. Jamie Malernee, Websites Helped Police Find Beating Suspects, Solve Other Crimes, Sun Sentinel (January 21, 2006). 22. Joyce K. Valenza, Teenagers Have a Voice in Blogs, The Philadelphia Inquirer (December 25, 2005), business/ htm. 23 Electronic Frontier Foundation, See blogsafety.com and Jonathan I. Ezor, Real World Blog Safety Risk, (January 2006), www. blogsafety.com/realworldrisks.htm [accessed January 30, 2006]. 25. Berson and Berson, Developing Thoughtful Cybercitizens, Social Studies and the Young Learner 16, no.4 (March/April 2003) 5-8. This book is not just the stories of the past but a book of hope and confidence for the future. What happens to the country, to the world, depends on what we do with what others have left us. from the Foreword by Robert F. Kennedy A thoughtful and persuasive book about political integrity. New York Times ISBN (paperback) $13.95 ($18.95 Can.) 304 pages Encourage your students to participate in the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest. Ilene R. Berson is an associate professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies at the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida in Tampa and serves as the director of the Consortium for Child Welfare Studies. Her research focuses on the prevention and intervention of child abuse and victimization, explores preventative interventions for child safety and prosocial development in cyberspace, and includes cross-national studies on the socio-emotional impact of online exploitation of children. She can be contacted at fmhi.usf.edu. Michael J. Berson is an associate professor of social science education at the University of South Florida. Dr. Berson conducts research on global child advocacy and technology in social studies education. He can be contacted at 128

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