Posted by: schooleducator | April 20, 2009

Kids Online: Lying As The New Social Norm?

Since when did lying become the new social norm? If you walk into any school today and ask students if they have a fake identity online, chances are that 90 percent or more will raise their hands. When asked why they lie online, many give the answer that they do not want “weird” people to know who they are. Others enjoy the game of identity creation, while others want to skirt age restrictions and happily fill out online registration forms with false ages. “It’s just a number,” one student says. The ethical implications of such thinking for educators and parents are huge. Are kids learning that lying is the new social norm? Well, in the words of one educator, “at least they are smart enough to know that they shouldn’t share their personal information online.”

How should parents and educators even begin to tackle this dilemma? One prudent way, according to one student, is to let kids know that adults trust them, but “it’s the rest of the world” that is the problem. When adults impose restrictions on kids, particularly related to online activity, kids often feel slighted and even disrespected. This is far from the case in most situations. Adults do genuinely worry about kids online, and they want their children to be safe. The problem, though, in the words of one student, is that “adults don’t really have a clue about what goes on online.” Kids recognize the gap in knowledge and comfort between themselves and “the grown-ups,” and they actually are sympathetic to adult naivete.

One creative way to tackle the problem of lying online, according to one particularly savvy student, is to have students create fake profiles in computer class. Then, the class can open the conversation about the ethical issues associated with falsifying personal information, while at the same time address the soundness of taking this tack in an effort to avoid encounters with “odd” characters. The ironic thing here is that in many ways it makes sense for kids to lie about their online self, especially with the fear of predators who infiltrate game and chat sites to connect with vulnerable, unsuspecting young people.

Other kids, out of fear of being kicked out of a guild in World of Warcraft, for example, freely admit to lying about their age just so they can continue to be a part of a virtual community. The number of mail accounts kids use often touches double digits and kids traverse email, chat, and game sites with amazing ease, not thinking twice about shifting identities from one venue to the next. There is a certain freedom in detachment, but it also complicates thinking when kids then confront ethical dilemmas in real time. But, news cycles do not exactly foster ethical decision-making, with Bernie Madoff scamming millions with his notorious Ponzi scheme, for example. Kids need role models to help them learn, but the challenge with online life is that there are no adult role models available; at least, no adult role models with any kind of “street cred” with kids. That is a scary prospect, particularly concerning the ease with which kids lie online. Just ask any random student in a school how they circumvent school filters to get on Facebook and you will get a quick reply to check out flitools.com. It is uncanny how quick students are to openly subvert attempts by schools to safeguard their online activity.

One child described her parents as having a policy of “benign neglect” in terms of legislating her online behavior. Many kids view the parental role as being too “light” on rules and actually want their parents to “dig deeper” so that schools do not have to get involved in resolving online transgressions. It is not unlike the attitude some parents have regarding alcohol use among teens. Parents know teens are going to try alcohol. Allow it in the home so they will do it under the care of a parent, the thinking goes. As long as things do not get too out of control, all is well, in the minds of some parents. The problem with this thinking is that unlike with alcohol consumption oftentimes parents do not know when things get out of control online, largely because they did not grow up with it and they are not used to the online world.

Nancy Darling, associate professor of psychology at Oberlin College in Ohio, completed a study to assess the extent of lying in children and teens. She discovered that 98 percent of teenagers have lied to their parents about everything from friends, to dating and drugs. Now, add online activity into the mix and these numbers will only grow more frightening. “When people are typing, they seem to carry around different norms in their head,” said Rutgers University Professor Terri Kurtzberg, co-author of the study, “Being Honest Online: The Finer Points of Lying in Online Ultimatum Bargaining.” This is vital information to digest, especially as parents and educators begin to figure out how to guide kids through the digital landscape. However, there are no current studies that document the extent to which kids lie online, other than the recent Iowa State studied that revealed that kids lie about the length of time they play games online. Broad-based information needs to be unearthed, though what we discover could unsettle parents and educators alike.

How to create community for children in schools, particularly regarding online social norms, is a rising challenge for educators and parents. It cannot be done in isolation, and it needs to involve the insights and recommendations of kids. They are the digital natives, after all.

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