This month we consider the age-old education dilemma: when faced with a potentially dangerous situation, is it more important to teach your students to avoid the danger or try to shield them from the hazard? Now, of course, this question really doesn't have a black-and-white answer, but for this space we'll consider one side versus the other.
The first time I faced this dilemma at this magazine revolved around the Internet filtering/acceptable use policies debate a few years ago. Back then, the question was should you teach your students that certain Web sites and online behavior are not acceptable, or should you impose filters that protect them from sites that are plainly not suitable for them? While this is still a worthy debate, the government's requirement of Internet filters has certainly pushed this issue to the back burner.
But today another online phenomenon, MySpace, has raised the same type of concerns. In our March issue, columnist Odvard Egil Dyrli alerted school officials to the problems that surround online social networking sites. This month, our other longtime columnist, Gary Stager, argues in favor of MySpace. Is this a matter of two differing opinions? Not really.
Gil's column ("Online Social Networking," March 2006, page 99) was more of a bulletin to school officials about the impact, and potential problems, these sites bring. Gary's column ("Guess Why They Call It MySpace," May 2006, p. 78) deals with all the hoopla that MySpace has faced in the last several months.
Actually, the two longtime friends make something of the same point in their own styles (which might be quite a surprise to both of them). MySpace is the messenger, not the problem. While Gary argues that MySpace isn't evil, the people misusing it are, Gil went out of his way in March to show that while MySpace is the leading social networking site, there are many others out there. Trying to squash MySpace to protect children is like shutting down Napster to halt file sharing. You may be able to accomplish it, but it doesn't solve the problem you're really concerned about. While MySpace is by far the biggest and fastest growing of these sites, others include Facebook, Friendster, LiveJournal and Xanga.
Gary points out that educating teens and pre-teens about the dangers of these sites and teaching them how to handle themselves online is the more valuable way to go. This knowledge becomes something that they can take with them, whether they are at home, a friend's house, or even a Starbuck's down the road. Blocking the site at school or trying to shut it down, temporarily solves the problem, but leaves the students no wiser for the future and the next site they visit.
Looking at the issue in a different way, shielding students from these sites reinforces the notion that "adults don't get it" and that students' views on topics they care about aren't valued. This lack of confidence and "we know better than you" attitude squashes educational curiosity, the very trait most educators are trying to nurture in their students.
I'll give Gil the last word this month. While the sudden popularity of these sites has left many administrators scrambling for how to react, Gil suggests districts come up with appropriate policies and issue guide materials for students, parents and staff. I couldn't have said it better myself.