Teachers stress social-networking safety
Can children find a safe haven in the vast world of social networking, where tens and even hundreds of millions of people flock to such popular sites as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter? Many parents would say no, since these sites feature a free exchange of conversation, information and photographs that often are not suitable for preteens.
On the other hand, several diocesan Catholic schools are enjoying big educational benefits by combining two key social-networking safety factors: kid-friendly sites and adult supervision.
For instance, a global-awareness project at Rochester's Cathedral School at Holy Rosary this past school year allowed fourth- through sixth-graders to exchange e-mails with students from Turkey. This was done via the site www.ePals.com which has members in some 200 countries and territories. The project was coordinated by Susan McKernan, who serves as the Cathedral School's educational-technology coordinator.
"You get to learn about other people's cultures, what they like to do, how they like to spend their time," noted Andrew Hoyt, 12, who graduated from Holy Rosary -- a prekindergarten through grade 6 school -- in June.
Another example of classroom social networking exists at Pittsford's St. Louis School, where students regularly post videos on www.schooltube.com, a children's site similar to YouTube. St. Louis' offerings have been mostly event-oriented, from an ice cream social to its Christmas pageant to a year-ending Mass. Leonor Rivera, the school's technology teacher and coordinator, has overseen this effort.
Every now and then, children can even benefit from social-networking sites for adults. For example, Susan Nagle, technology coordinator and network administrator at St. Mary Our Mother School in Horseheads, utilized Twitter, a microblogging service, this past spring during the Atlantis shuttle repair of the Hubble telescope. Her students followed "tweets" -- or posts -- that astronaut Mike Massimino regularly sent to Twitter from orbit.
"One in particular that was enjoyed by the children was his story of how he liked to float chocolate in the air and float in a horizontal position and eat the chocolate, like a fish. This led to a discussion about gravity and a conversation on which would drop faster, the smaller or larger object," Nagle said. "Another was of his story about how they slept in a bag tethered to the wall, a cot or a seat. This led to other insights about gravity and its pressure."
"I see the use of Twitter in the schools as an excellent source for news-breaking events," Nagle added. "In fact, the discovery of water on Mars was tweeted first, before all other sources of communication."
Yet Nagle emphasized that she's squarely against children using Twitter -- which lists a minimum age of 13 in its terms of agreement -- on their own.
"I relate or show the tweets from only my news sources," she said.
You must also be 13 to use Facebook or Bebo, whereas MySpace sets the minimum age at 14. McKernan, citing safety reasons, isn't so sure those guidelines are sufficient.
"Personally, I don't even feel comfortable (for usage) under the age of 16, raising children in this day and age," McKernan remarked, expressing concerns about online predators, bullying and gossip.
McKernan said her classes regularly discuss cyber safety. She added that even the kid-friendly sites need adult supervision. She said her students' ePals project was conducted through her account and thus allowed her to view all incoming and outgoing emails.
"The students knew that if the rules weren't followed, they would have their accounts disabled. They also had to sign contracts and get parental permission," McKernan noted.
Roberta Considine, technology coordinator for Holy Family Primary School in Elmira, said that social networking was completely off limits at her school this past year since the school's students were only in grades prekindergarten through 3. Rather, Internet activity in her lab was based on specific educational games.
"We do discuss the need to be safe on the computer and not talk to people if someone tried to talk to them. They need to let their parents know right away," Considine added.
Nagle agreed that careful oversight of the Internet is crucial, saying that "just as you would teach a child to be aware of 'stranger danger,' the wrongness of bullying and how to make good choices in the real world, the same lessons surely apply to the cyber world."
However, McKernan observed that an ongoing challenge for technology teachers is keeping pace with the rapid expansion of new sites.
"It takes a lot of monitoring," she said.
Speaking of time consumption, Andrew from the Cathedral School raised another point to be weighed along with safety: At what point does social networking cross the line from valuable interaction into wasting time?
"If it's just to chat, I don't have time in between school and sports," he said.
Andrew asserted that when somebody is within close range, he'd prefer to avoid social networking in favor of a more direct social presence.
"If you're going to use time talking, instead of sitting on the computer you might as well have somebody over to your house or talk on the phone," he remarked.
Networking options for kids
Students occasionally admit to Susan McKernan that they've passed themselves off as being 18 or 20 years old, so as to work around the minimum age limit set by Facebook, MySpace and similar social-networking Web sites.
Though she obviously disapproves of this practice, McKernan -- the education-technology coordinator for Rochester's Cathedral School at Holy Rosary -- acknowledged that young people are naturally interested in social networking. Her approach? Offer satisfying alternatives.
McKernan noted that a number of social-networking sites and browsers are designed and safe for students. Among her top choices are www.zacbrowser.com, designed specifically for children on the autism spectrum; www.clubpenguin.com, which is overseen by The Walt Disney Co.; and www.kidzui.com, which advertises itself as "the Internet for kids" with more than 1,000,000 parent-approved games, Web sites and videos available.
For a detailed listing of family-friendly Web sites and Internet-safety resources from McKernan, visit http://schools.dor.org/cshr/classrooms.cfm.