I work as a youth development professional representing the 4-H program. During a recent meeting, the topic of creating My Space, or other social networking community sites, for 4-H clubs and groups came up. The debate on whether or not these sites were appropriate as a means of communicating information and marketing programs was heated to say the least. Some advocated that My Space is a wonderful tool for connecting with kids and should absolutely be utilized as a resource. Others were appalled by the idea, claiming that social networking sites are a breeding ground for sexual offenders and other such creeps. So is it appropriate for youth organizations, schools, and even church youth groups to open My Space accounts as a means of marketing and promoting programs and connecting with kids? In my opinion, of course!
A comment that arose during the meeting likened My Space to sex education. If we advocate abstinence, but give children condoms “just in case,” we are killing our stance before we’ve even really given it a try. If we warn of the potential dangers of social networking accounts, but then open a site just for our youth organization, what message does this send to kids? What has to be understood in regards to this argument is that there is nothing inherently wrong with social networking communities. While they can certainly be used inappropriately, and no doubt many teens and children do use them inappropriately, the idea of these sites alone is not a necessary evil. When discussing sex, for instance, we do all we can to promote abstinence. Some programs do offer safe sex education as well, but abstinence is still the primary goal. But do we try and prevent kids from using My Space in the first place? Probably not. So since we aren’t doing something to prevent kids from using My Space, then why not use it as a tool to our (and the kids’) benefit?
Social networking sites are an incredible resource for getting information out about events, activities, and other happenings that youth organizations want to promote. The kids who use My Space (which is the vast majority of those aged thirteen and above) spend a lot of time on the site. Information about events is displayed instantly and just as quickly the word spreads about what is going on. Social networking sites provide instant advertising, free of charge, which finds its way directly to the youth involved.
Another point made against using these sites for youth organizations involved parental knowledge of the sites. Should we as youth development professionals be responsible for informing parents that Sara or Mark just joined the Math and Science Club My Space page? Frankly, this is not anyone’s responsibility but the parents’. Parents are charged with the responsibility to know what their children are doing online. Other than possibly informing parents that the site does exist, no responsibility should be expected of the site creator.
The final major point made during the discussion pertained to “unwanted” information discovered through My Space. For example, say one of the teens you work with became a friend on your site and you decide to visit her My Space page. When reading her blog you discover that she is doing drugs. As her teacher, 4-H club leader, etc what is your responsibility here? The solution here is simple: don’t add the students to your friends list. Instead of accepting friends to your account, keep the account public. Only use the site as a one-way means of communication. You list information about events and activities and those interested can read about it. That’s it. To keep yourself both legal and sane, choose just to use the site as a marketing tool and nothing else.
Yes, the internet can be a scary place. It can also be an incredible resource, marketing tool, and information system. As youth educators, we have a responsibility to embrace new technologies, rather than to view them as simply a necessary evil. We can bury our heads in the sand and hope it goes away (which it won’t) or we can join the revolution and use the resource we have right at our fingertips.