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Facebook 101: Hosting a Family Facebook Night

Bill Bass

As a technology integration specialist, I am often asked to speak to classes about online safety. During those sessions we don't directly address Facebook, other than mentioning that students should be over 13 years old to have an account. After the snickering subsides, I continue talking about techniques to keep students' identity safe online. It is clear that middle schoolers think they are being safe and that Facebook is different because "you have to be friends to see anything." Those sessions weren't the time and place to have a deeper conversation about Facebook, but the need was there and the opportunity to educate was long overdue.

After many conversations and brainstorming among colleagues, we decided to host a "Facebook Night" where we would invite community members to talk with them about how Facebook works, privacy settings and concerns, as well as answer questions about managing one's online identity. Our goal was to support the needs and wants of the community, while at the same time maintaining the focus of understanding how Facebook and online spaces work and the implications for using these tools. Through our conversations with students and parents, it was clear that there was a great deal of confusion about the site and how it was used. In one instance, a parent had been called to school for a conference because of a comment that her daughter had posted on Facebook about another student the night before. Before the conversation even started, she assured the administrator that her daughter was in her room all night because she was grounded, and there was no way she could have posted anything. After pulling up her daughter's page, all the posts that were shown were done "via mobile." There were at least 12 posts from the previous night when her daughter had "no access to Facebook." Shocked, her mother muttered, "I just don't understand all this technology stuff." That afternoon we picked a date and began hammering out the details for a Facebook information event for families.

To kick off the night, we had a speaker from http://www.inobtr.org/ -- a non-profit organization based in St. Louis established to educate students, parents and community members on online safety. The speaker talked in general about online safety, discussing predators, cyber-bullying and phishing scams. More than anything, this gave parents a starting point to begin thinking about the darker side of the Internet, and resources to focus their thoughts going forward. While this was great information, we really wanted to focus on parents and students sitting down, side by side, and learning. 

After the general session, there were two areas in the school for attendees to explore. In the gym, there was an online safety fair with tables set up where parents could experience some of the technology that is used by students in the schools. This served as an opportunity for parents to use a SMARTboard, tablet, and student response systems so they can see first hand what technology is available in modern classrooms. Additionally, local law enforcement and various other school and community organizations had the opportunity to talk with parents and students about the topic of online safety. In another large area, tables were set up with computers where students and parents could get online and explore Facebook together with the guidance of an instructor to help them navigate and answer questions. 

Family Concerns About Facebook

Parents who were in attendance were clearly concerned about the implications that come with using online tools, but most of them had never been on Facebook for reasons ranging from fear of privacy that is mentioned so often in the media, to the idea that social networking is "just for kids." In some instances, the students took control and showed their parents how to log in and navigate the website. But in most cases, we began with the basics of creating an account and taking steps to secure the log-in information. We took this opportunity to talk about creating and using secure passwords that use letters, numbers and symbols as well as addressed the importance of keeping all log-in information safe. So many times with students, problems can be avoided by teaching basic security techniques. The most primitive (but also most ignored) of these is to not use the same username and password for all log-ins. If that log-in gets into the wrong hands, every site it has been used for can now be accessed. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COU5T-Wafa4&feature=player_embedded for more information on creating a secure password.)

Once accounts were created, we moved onto the basic interface of Facebook -- status updates, mobile access, and finding friends. As best we could, we tried to decrease fear by focusing more on how the site can be used, and talking about the benefits of being able to connect. For the most part, it was the first time many of the parents had ever even looked at the Facebook site with that lens, so it was interesting to watch them discover the space where their children and some of their friends have spent so many hours. It was fun to see people connect with friends past and, in keeping with the idea of discovery, we gave them time to simply search and ask questions. 

Soon they began to see the attraction of the network and started to understand its uses. One parent commented that Facebook had always seemed like one of the things that kids do. She didn't feel that it had a role in her life, but also admitted that she just assumed that it was like email and that her daughter knew how to be safe online and do the right thing. During the conversation I asked her where she thought her daughter picked up as vital for digital citizenship. Her response was, "She's grown up around computers. It's not a big deal to her." Luckily her daughter was sitting beside her and admitted that most of her learning had been through observing her friends' mistakes. When probed, she acknowledged her reticence to approach her mother with questions. One of two things might happen: either her questions would have gone unanswered because her parents had no experience, or she would have been banned from using the site because her parents would overreact to the many media reports on how social networking is bad for kids. This was a giant breakthrough for this family, because they had the opportunity to experience Facebook together. Because of our event, this mother and daughter were beginning to have conversations around what it means to communicate in our world of constant connectedness. 

After much searching and "friending," we moved on to help everyone consider what it means to "read" Facebook. Essentially this entailed dispelling the idea that Facebook is like email and that every message needs to be read. We tried to frame it as around the idea of a river of information, status updates, and pictures that they could jump into at any time and leave just as easily. Every message didn't need to have a response, nor did all links need to be followed or pictures viewed. 

Students who sat with their parents showed off their skimming skills, gleaning the information that they wanted at a glance and knowing which of their friends they wanted to "hear." While the adults in the room looked at this practice in disbelief, one student replied, "Dad, it's not email. I don't have to read everything. I have lots of friends but I only care about what my best friends are saying. Since I'm connected to these other friends, I can always peek into their conversations when I have time, but I don't have to." Therein lies the biggest disconnect between generations when it comes to social networking. The online world is where students connect. Unlike many adults, email is not their first stop, nor is it their preferred platform. Because of that, there is a responsibility for parents and educators to be familiar with these tools, not because we have to adopt them as a primary means of communication, but because by understanding the tools that our students and kids use, we have insight into what's important to them and what they need from the adults in their lives.

Understanding Privacy Issues

Since its founding, Facebook has made a number of well-publicized missteps around privacy that have pushed many of the parents in attendance away from the site. This are still concerns, but over time, Facebook has implemented a settings page giving users a variety of controls. Due to time constraints, rather than touching on each one individually, we chose to discuss privacy in general terms and simply directed everyone to those privacy settings. At the time of the event, we focused on the need to control who sees what is posted. There is a common assumption that posts are private only to people classified as friends. However, the default posting is public, making any status update available for anyone with a Facebook account. Additionally, Facebook offers the ability to add location information to a post. Taking a poll of the room, almost every person there who had an account before the event had never looked at the privacy settings. They just accepted the default settings, showing all their information to the world. We walked everyone through changing their privacy settings as a part of their profile.

Managing Identity and Digital Dossiers

The last piece that we addressed that evening was managing one's online identity. So many of the students who walk our halls are living and sharing much of their lives online, but have no idea that what they post and share online is becoming part of their digital identity that will follow them well into adulthood. Youth indiscretion has been detrimental to future employment in more than one case. Most people don't know the extent to which their movements online are recorded and tracked. To illustrate the point, we showed them a YouTube video entitled "Digital Dossier." The video digitally tracks someone named "Alex" through his digital life, showing just how much information is collected on us as well navigate online. We showed this video not as a means to scare the parents and students, but rather to give them insight into the realities of living in our world. Under no circumstances were we suggesting that online interactions should be stopped, or that Facebook was the problem in schools. It's just a tool that's being used for communication -- the digital passing of notes. It's not something to rail against or to see as the detriment of society, but it does matter, especially to students.

Facebook in Schools

As the night waned, a parent approached a colleague of mine with some concerns. "Does this mean that you're going to open up Facebook to students?" she asked. No, not in in our district. There have been many conversations and focus groups of students and teachers exploring the issue, but ultimately, this is not a move our administration is prepared to make.

"Tonight was more about understanding and exploring. We wanted to start conversations and show that it's not all bad," my colleague replied. "But we do want your kids to be safe and understand the implication of living in this world." 

As with all things, technology evolves, changes are made, and updates are rolled out. Since that initial Facebook Night, dramatic changes have been made to the look and feel of the social network, making new conversations necessary. One of the more recent updates is the introduction of video chat into the Facebook infrastructure. While it came out with a great deal of fanfare in the technology world, many adults don't know that it exists. This is one of the biggest challenges we face in education: new tools and features come out every day and keeping up is impossible. However, it is important to not dismiss these tools as a passing fad or something that "just the kids are doing." Facebook has changed the way many people communicate and whether or not it's the tool that is being used five years from now is immaterial. We will always have to adjust our thinking, our paradigm, and maybe even our practice to reach the students who will come to us to explore the world.


INOBTR - http://www.inobtr.org/
Strong password creation tips - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COU5T-Wafa4&feature=player_embedded#!
Facebook privacy settings - http://mashable.com/2011/02/07/facebook-privacy-guide
Youth and Media - http://www.youthandmedia.org


Bill Bass

Bill Bass is a former middle and high school English teacher who now works with teachers as a Technology Integration Specialist and an adjunct professor of educational technology in St. Louis, Missouri. He is Co-President of Educational Technology Association of Greater St. Louis, a Google Certified Teacher and a past member of the NCTE Executive Board.