Austen Crowder

The most important lesson we never teach our children

Filed By Austen Crowder | April 07, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: education policy, Facebook, internet safety, netiquette, privacy settings, public

I taught at a Catholic high school for one year. In that time I saw exactly one intersection between schoolwide policy and social networking; the administrators called the entire school down for a brief presentation on Facebook safety. Picture-41-300x232.png(Word in the teacher's lounge was that the Dean of Students was surfing Facebook profiles and digging up information on students, prompting the assembly, but, hey, I just worked there.) The overwhelming theme of the assembly? "You represent our school on Facebook and the internet at large. Don't make us look bad."

Not "Be careful because the internet is forever." Not "Here's how to do social networking safely." The only two messages for Facebook-using students were "don't screw up the school's image" and "don't access the site on our grounds." I taught a mini-lesson on the subject when we got back upstairs, pulling up my old sites on, but it was more like a plug in the side of a leaking boat than a solution; these kids just didn't understand how to be safe on the internet.

This, quite simply, is a disservice to our children, and in light of Itawaba's recent run-in with the netroots blogosphere, dangerous for childrens' reputation. It is far too easy to share too much, and by the time kids realize the damage they've done it's already too late. Kids need to know the First Rule of the Internet - everything posted on the internet is forever. Why we aren't teaching this in schools is beyond me.

Examples and discussion are below the cut.

Present net safety curriculum for our classrooms is much like the abstinence-only approach to sex education: both rely on the kid doing exactly what they're told, and both fail miserably to teach exactly why the advice is so important. I taught kids how to use search engines, but was not asked to teach basic personal information and image control. I taught kids how to spot good information, but couldn't teach a lesson on Facebook. People were more worried about keeping Facebook out of schools than keeping kids safe on the internet.

Schools have a phobia of social networking sites. The idea that kids could, at any time, be surfing a social networking site like Facebook or Twitter scares the ever-loving crap out of administrators. But ignoring the fact that kids use these resources at home allows stuff like this to happen:

For God's sake, lock down your FB... I can't keep laughing at the hypocrisy.

"Lindsey Begley won't you save me, san fransisco?
February 22 at 6:37pm"

No, sweetie, the Castro district will eat you alive if you're scared of Constance.

Asking about the "parent prom" a few weeks ago was classy. Especially when you claim this wasn't prom.

I'm a freelance journalist, and I can tell you, IF you ever become a journalist, people who disagree with you are going to dig this up and use it to discredit whatever you write. If you write that puppies and kittens are fluffy, I guarantee, someone will disagree with you, post these old comments, and say, "What does she know, she's just a bigot."

Whatever you meant before in the heat of emotion is what is actually deep down in your soul - or lack thereof. Your second comment reeks of getting slapped down by someone and told to apologize, and I don't mean anyone here.

The damage is done, my dear. The internet and fast food grease traps have something in common - neither can ever be scrubbed 100% clean.

Dig further, and you'll see at least one other student posting under the assumed guise of anonymity and quasi-privacy, two claims which we all know to be false on the intarwebz. Two kids who don't know what they're getting into step into a progressive blog's comment thread and proceed to have their opinions and thoughts sliced to shreds by contradictory status updates posted on their own Facebook walls. To us in the netroots/internet-savvy world, the response is simple: cute, but we know you're lying. The teacher in me is given pause, though. Why are these kids giving away the farm in public profiles?

That's not to say I don't agree with the LGBT blogs for playing hardball with the kids. Take Pam's House Blend, which was recently sent a letter asking for pictures to be removed from their site. Pam's response hits the nail on the head:


Unfortunately your Facebook profile was public, therefore you gave permission for the whole world to see and distribute your information. The photos aren't coming down.

Just so you know, I didn't obtain the photos from your Facebook page anyway, I retrieved them from La Figa, after finding them because the Facebook page was public. Who knows how many sites are now featuring your HS friends enjoying the heterosexuals-only prom.

Sadly, too many young people don't think before they publicly post photos or messages that they may later regret. On the Internet it is forever, and future colleges and employers will now see these images floating around the web with unflattering commentary because you chose not to take advantage of Facebook's very clear privacy features to begin with. They were available to you the moment you opened the account, and in fact, your account's now using them, but it's too late to do damage control because of poor judgment.

Perhaps I'd consider taking them down if you and your friends, and your parents publicly apologize to all of the students sent to the "other" prom as pariahs.


These kids thought they were posting under anonymity and quasi-privacy, two claims which we know are impossible on the internet. Simple Google sleuthing and digging uncovered their identities, photos, personal thoughts, social networking pages, everything. They waded into a firestorm with a garden hose and had no idea they were about to be torn apart. Worse, the posters on both sites accurately told the children just how bad a mistake they just made: their thoughts were now forever archived, tied to their name in Google searches, and will come back to haunt them for years to come.

In this case, I say justice done. The kids were party to a shameful sham and need to be shown just how angry people are in response. The bigger lesson is that kids are now living in an age where every aspect of their social and personal lives, if not carefully controlled, can be excavated and published to the entire world with just a few mouse clicks.

It is on this issue that I feel our educational institutions have most failed our children. Not reading, or writing, or 'rithmetic, as pundits would have you believe; these are things that teachers already know how to teach. Allowing children to wade into a public information beast, unarmed and unprepared for combat, where ideas last forever? That's a failure on a totally different level.

The following basic lessons should be mandatory in every school curriculum:

  • Everyone on the internet knows everything, and has a perfect memory. Google-fu has made it frighteningly easy to trace a person. Even with an "anonymous" username, people can dig up any and all information available on the public 'net. The thing kids don't realize is that there is no way to put information back into the box; once it's in the public eye, it's public. Forever.
  • Privacy settings help, but you are never, ever anonymous. I've seen my protected Facebook status pop up on Arabic mirrors of Facebook information. Kids need to assume that anything posted to a website will be available to anybody willing to dig deeply enough. Worse, most kids are like Holly and never bother to set up their privacy settings, opening themselves up to trolls, web spiders, and journalists who rightly take the information on a public website to be available for public comment.
  • If it's exploitable, it will be exploited, possibly for Lulz. I don't think I need to explain this statement to any/b/ody.
  • What you say now will stay with you forever. I can still pull up my first websites on and read my earliest journal. In my youth I had made the journal public, and it was collected and archived along with everything else the internet has to offer. Thankfully this happened in pre Web 2.0 land, and I was able to pull everything off the Google cache. Today's kids do not have that luxury.

The best part about this is that it applies to everyone, not just LGBT youth or bigoted schoolchildren. The sooner we teach kids how to behave on the internet, the sooner I won't feel conflicted and awkward when some kid's facebook profile picture or status update lands on some internet blog. (And, considering my lead photo, I'll hold my tongue firmly within my cheek on that count.)

People say these kids should know better, but the kids are never given a chance to learn. What's wrong with that picture?

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I agree.

Reading this article prompted me to spend another 50 bucks to see what I could dig up on myself, as well as conduct a google search.

I've been fairly careful during the years I've been on the internet -- not perfectly so, and there's ways of getting that info, but it's difficult to do.

And then, I cam across an article on MSNBC:

A mother being sued for slander by her son. And the interesting thing in the article is the mom's basis for shutting her son out of his Facebook account:

New, of Arkadelphia, Ark., said many of her son's postings didn't reflect well on him, so after he failed to log off the social networking site one day last month, she posted her own items on his account and changed his password to keep him from using it again.

Which, in all fairness, is exactly the same thing I would have done with my kids. And I did teach my kids how to protect their privacy.

It's rather interesting, and you raise a kick ass point.

Like I said, I tried to teach it in my classroom. It's hard to do when administration would rather worry and police kids' cell phones and facebook use on school grounds than treat them as just another tool.

I think we're going to see a deluge of defamation cases in the courts as this issue starts to find traction.

Margaretpoa Margaretpoa | April 7, 2010 9:57 PM

A couple of those bigoted children hit the comments of FDL earlier and their contributions were what you would expect from high school bigots: A lot of generalizations and complaining and rumor mongering about Constance without any concrete examples or real citation. It would have been hilarious if it hadn't been so horrifying to look at. I like the younger generation. As a group, they are far more tolerant than mine but people like these remind us that intolerance isn't dead or even dying.

Even still, don't you think those kids deserve at least a basic education on "how not to give away the farm on the Internet"? I was really, _really_ creeped out when commenters were digging up the activities and photos of these kids.

Margaretpoa Margaretpoa | April 8, 2010 2:05 PM

Oh, absolutely! They use the internet as a hurtful weapon these days, when in my day, we would have toilet papered their house.

Austen, seriously, I get your message, but is it really the MOST important lesson? A kid's online life is one part of their lives, but there are so many other aspects of a teen's world which influence online behavior and the 3D stuff as well.

I think you read "Most important" without the quantifier. The curriculum in schools does not cover any form of net safety. At all. They cover character education in their mission statements, basic net literacy in their state-mandated curricula, schoolwide decency in their policy handbooks, but the schools are so afraid of the internet that they'd rather let their children flounder and leave their potentially negative mark on the internet.

It's not the most important thing we teach our children. It's the most important thing that we don't teach. Worse, it's the lesson we are _terrified to teach_.

Agreed, Austen. When our daughter started using the internet, we went through an exhaustive list of do's and don'ts, but we'd still have to check in. Why? Because she was also learning bad behavior from other kids at school who didn't know any better. She ended up teaching more kids internet safety at school than the teachers would.

Why? Because all they taught was "Don't use MySpace/Facebook at school" even though all the kids have web enabled cell phones and surf all day long.

Indeed. I made my fair share of faux pas when I started on the 'net, but in the "old web" it was pretty easy to remove those mistakes. (Your website sharing too much information? delete it, and overwrite the old web history by creating a new one.) HOwever, this new web 2.0 world is more easily searched, crawled, archived, and canvassed for information. Kids can't just wade into this blind, and the sooner administrators realize this the sooner kids won't be damaging their future image.

To be honest, when the administration at my school pulled the "Don't make us look bad" card on these kids instad of facing the real problem - _kids were sharing the wrong things_ - I was furious. It's a shame people can't see what damage is done by inaction.

I've never been anonymous on the Internet, and I never expected to be. Way back in the mid 1990s I saw so many people change their usernames on the BBSes, IRC, AOL etc because they had said something stupid. And people would figure it out every time, usually because they'd say something stupid again. Or their typing style was too obvious.

So, I decided I would never change my username and own everything I said, even if it was stupid. And I haven't changed it for 15 years. Good thing I put so much thought into the meaning. (And yes, I've said lots of stupid things.)

Still, Google's new social search made me feel like I was in that dream where you show up to school naked. I was like, wow, Google just went ahead and made all these connections without even asking. Web sites don't even pretend to offer privacy anymore. So maybe the next generation won't treat the web like a place where you can be anonymous.