Violation of the site’s terms of use notwithstanding, a Brandon, Manitoba teen is facing several criminal charges for impersonating one of his teachers in Facebook.  The charges relate to impersonation with criminal intent.

Let’s get a few things out of the way.  I haven’t seen the Facebook profile in question, nor am I an expert in Canadian Law.  Clearly, the student overstepped some serious bounds.  After all, criminal charges don’t run out of your tap like water.  There has to be some significant evidence to merit charges.

In preparing for an interview I did with Calgary’s AM770 CHQR this evening, I initially considered the following to be my key points:

  • most (if not all) of what ends up on the web is indexed and cached for all to enjoy in perpetuity
  • Facebook is famous for its overcomplicated process to remove profile data and related links

I was wrong.

There is a moral, ethical and legal component to this issue.  And while parents bear a significant amount of the responsibility to educate their children on the use and abuse of the Internet, schools need to take a leadership role on access and education.

ACCESS

If the media is to be believed, schools have been increasing the amount of computer technology and Internet access available in the classroom over the last few years.  In some cases, schools limit what students are able to access.  That is to say, students can only access specific websites for specific purposes.  Content can be regulated specifically (by website name) or dynamically (by filtering by embedded content).  In other cases, schools explicitly allow access without control and then implicitly block access when sites or content become a problem.  In other words, they set the ball rolling and then wash their hands of the problem.  They take a “not in my house” approach after they’ve already made allowances “in their house”.

Having said that, most of what’s happening in Facebook is likely not happening on school computers during school hours.  A growing number of children have unlimited, high speed Internet access in their homes.  This leads me to my next point.

EDUCATION

I am confident that there is very little if any education on moral, ethical and legal concerns when using the Internet.  While “we” may be putting a lot of energy into helping children identify some of the more tangible threats (stalking, sexual harassment, hate crimes, etc…), I don’t believe much is being done to help students understand Acceptable Use and Terms of Use agreements on sites like Facebook.  A majority of people, students and adults alike, flock to the sites that are popular and blindly select any checkbox that is required of them in order to gain access to the site.  I would argue that many school administrations don’t understand the Facebook Terms of Use.  And yet, at least some schools have at one time allowed students to access these sites from school networks.

When I was in elementary school, library orientation was used to help us understand how to find information, how information was stored and related, how to synthesize the information and how to behave in the library.  Elmer the Safety Elephant taught us seven safety rules including how to cross the road and who we could and couldn’t accept candy from.  Both were integrated into our elementary school education.

Today’s children face more complex problems — and more of them.  The problems are ethereal and obfuscated for corporate interests.  We need to make sure students understand the moral, ethical and legal reasons for conducting themselves with respect for others.  We’re not doing that.

The thirty-somethings that use the social web were raised in a true social ecosystem and (for the most part) have managed to port their social skills to the digital world in an effective and productive way.  The digital natives are being raised in a digital social ecosystem where real-life interaction, and the appreciation of real people is limited or completely absent.  It would seem it’s easier for them to not be affected by nefarious Internet-based activities.

What’s the solution to the problem?

I believe education and simplification are key to any solution.  Since schools have taken it upon themselves to direct their students to the Internet to conduct research, they need to do more than just tell students how to do a Google search and then filter the results for their assignment.  The schools need to educate students to understand the digital culture.  And, it’s time for the corporate world, particularly the legal departments, to shorten and simplify their user agreements.  It’s no longer appropriate to put the onus on your uninformed and/or confused users and wash your hands of any responsibility.