safety vs censorship

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I've been thinking about filtering a lot lately. Much of that thought has been spurred by watching my kids--especially my older son--exploring social software. He's blogging now, and is reading my blog as well. He's an IM wizard, enthusiastically working with far more open conversation windows than I can manage without my brain overheating. He hangs out in Neopets, and signs online petitions to allow fan sites to post Neopet photos. He does all this wirelessly from the hand-me-down Powerbook G3 that he got for his birthday this year.

All good things, in theory. What's not to like for a parent who's as much of an Internet and social software geek as I am? Well...plenty.

Let's start with the blog. The benefits of his blogging have ben multi-fold and inspiring--it spurred him to write enthusiastically and in detail about our trip to Asia, it made him aware that he had a platform from which he could explore not just his experiences but also his questions and frustrations (like book censorship, for example), it made his teacher (and his classmates, and their parents) aware of the power of student-generated content generally, and blogs specifically.

But with blog readership comes the inevitable blog spam. After the first few "enlargement" comments, I installed mt-blacklist, which helps a lot. But that's a short-term solution, since the ingenuity of spammers tends to outpace the rate of solution provision. The new MT comment registration service may help more...we'll see.

But what's more challenging are the oh-so-difficult questions of public vs private information online. For example, I know not to put my home phone number and address on my blog. But he and his friends haven't yet developed those instinctive filters for personal information--and on several occasions, I've found our home number, along with those of his friends, in a blog posting. I quickly edited that out on the blogs I control--but it left me more than a little unnerved.

Recently, he and his friends discovered BlogSpot, and decided to set up a group blog to complain about every child's favorite problem--their parents. Anyone with kids knows that good parenting isn't always popular parenting, but that doesn't make it any less painful to see one's children publicly reviling you for what they see as unfair and hurtful actions.

So we had a talk. He reads my blog, and complains (with reason, I think) if I talk too much about him. There are purists who would argue that if I were a real writer, I wouldn't allow his reactions (or anyone else's) to change what I write. But I do think about my audience when I write, and I think about how what I write will affect them and my relationship with them--now, and in the future. And I want him to do the same. "How do you think it makes me feel when you write mostly about what you think is wrong with me?" I asked him. I don't begrudge him his feelings, or his right to an outlet. But I do want him to understand that publicly expressing those feelings can and will have an effect on the people who read them. It was a good talk, a valuable talk. But it remains to be seen to what extent it changes his use of this exhilarating medium--and it also remains to be seen if my husband and I will continue to encourage this level of freedom of expression if we see it as putting him or his friends at risk.

And while we're on the topic of risk, there's that pesky IM thing. I walked into the room where he was typing the other day, and he quickly closed the IM window. My parental radar kicked in immediately. "Who were you talking to?" I asked. "Just a friend," he answered, intentionally vague. We eyed each other. I told him I really needed to know who it was, but that I didn't have to see what was being written. . "Was it someone I know?" "No." "Who was it?" "He's a kid that T (a neighborhood friend) met online. He's 13."

WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! (That's the sound of the all-hands-on-deck alarm that went off in my head.)

"We had a deal," I said. "IM only with people you already know in person, and not with anyone Dad or I haven't approved to put on your buddy list."

He protested, telling me that he could tell this was a nice kid, that he was smart enough not to reveal any personal information via IM, that obviously I didn't trust him or think he was smart. To no avail in this case--I'm not willing to budge on this rule, and I made that clear. But I'm deeply concerned--we had the rule in place, and he broke it. How do I know it won't happen again?

So I'm caught. On the one hand, I want to encourage his exploration and use of online media and interaction. On the other, he's right--I don't trust him not to make potentially dangerous mistakes. It's not that I don't think he's smart, or savvy, or listening to my warnings. What he doesn't understand--what he can't understand--is how easy it is to be fooled, to be taken in, to be taken advantage of. Especially when you're honest to a fault, as he is--because it's that much harder to really understand just how dangerous and dishonest so many people "out there" can be.

(As an example of how this honesty plays out, here's what happened after we found out the boys had been visiting "NSFW" sites on one of our computers--via a phone call from one of their friends' parents. I had a serious talk with them about appropriate use of the computers, and the risk of lost privileges. I told them that the computer recorded all the sites they went to, and that I'd be checking that on a regular basis. A day or two later, while I was at work, they came rushing downstairs to talk to Dad. "We accidentally ended up on a page that had grownup stuff on it, but it's okay. We left the site, and we erased it from the history of the browser so that mom wouldn't get upset!" He didn't know whether to be delighted at their honesty or dismayed at their obvious mastery of the technology.)

This isn't a new problem for parents. We all struggle with the "stranger danger" issues these days--how do we keep our kids from being paralyzed with fear at the sight of a stranger while still keeping them safe from the very really harm that lurks around too many corners? I don't have answers right now, just questions, and concerns.

For the time being, I'm continuing to err on the side of access, with a healthy dose of oversight and communication. But I'm also hoping that better solutions for children's use of technology begin to emerge. A kids' IM client that I can configure in terms of access, for example. An easy to install and configure weblog client that lets me approve posts before they go live. Varying levels of access that i can allow or remove, depending on each child's activities and maturity. I wish I saw more work happening in this space, though I understand that COPPA makes it difficult.

8 TrackBacks

uh oh from jill/txt on March 29, 2004 2:24 AM

So what do you do when your kid starts a group blog with his or her friends for complaining about their parents?... Read More

Liz Lawley has written a personal account of her concerns about her child's use of the internet, that covers everything from rules about sharing personal information, to the hurt of discovering a group blog about parents, and the risks of Read More

Liz Lawley is worried about safety vs censorship: I walked into the room where he was typing the other day, and he quickly closed the IM window. My parental radar Read More

Liz Lawley at mamamusings writes about negotiating between trust and safety when one's children use the internet. Tracy Kennedy at... Read More

Liz Lawley at mamamusings writes about negotiating between trust and safety when one's children use the internet. Tracy Kennedy at... Read More

A terribly interesting blog post from mamamusing entitled safety vs censorship. It explains and discusses the problems having a child who is pretty tech savvy. The person who is writing is quite tech savvy herself � but as someone points out in the com... Read More

mamamusings: safety vs censorship... Read More

Odds and Ends from on April 2, 2004 12:59 PM

Via CavLec, Why Content Management Fails Via The 19th Floor, Thirteen Ways to Raise a Nonreader Via jill/txt, Safety vs Censorship... Read More


It's funny you should mention this. I just submitted a manuscript on edublogging that mentions the experiment you and Lane did. There was difficulty deciding how much I should reveal. Should I just say "someone tried this"? Or should I give Lane's URL. I compromised (somewhat), by citing the blog entry in which you cite his blog. My reasoning is that if it's out in blogspace, it will already get a lot more coverage than this book will add. Moreover, this cites you (the parent) rather than Lane directly. But I did have to think a bit about it.

As a result, the chapter talks a bit about this as a problem. It is a problem for anyone using blogs in education, not just for elementary students. A given blogger's *potential* audience extends worldwide and indefinitely into the future. There are things on the internet even now from my past that I wish were erasable. I wonder what it will be like for 10 and 15-year-olds today when at 40 they find writings from less mature versions of themselves. Will their past haunt them, or will it teach them?

This idea of blogs biting back in the longue duree is an especially interesting one, I think. The alternative, in educational settings, may be to blog pseudonymously. But that's really hard to do. It also diminishes the sense of ownership that can accompany blogging in one's own name, IMHO.

If you are having to run to keep ahead of your child, imagine what the average technodweeb parent is up against. What you are saying has affirmed me in my own -- admittedly theoretical, as my son is three -- approach to technology and media. We can't prevent them from gaining access if that's what they want. What we can do, if we're not careful, is put barriers in place so that they are uncomfortable coming to us. I think what you are doing is exactly right: lots of honest discussion, a prudent amount of parental supervision, and the establishment of good communication so that you and he can deal together with anything that arises.

I have a co-worker who found email in his high school-aged daughter's profile from her gym teacher. It was of the "I can't live without you" variety, despite the fact that he was married with kids, etc.

A former co-worker told me she didn't mind her high school aged son searching inappropriate sites. She was more concerned that he was doing a forced restart off of the face of the computer when he heard her pull into the driveway which was causing problems with Windoze. (That was, of course, before he got his girlfriend pregnant shortly after he graduated from high school, not that the two necessarily have anything to do with one another)

Our son was given the "inappropriate use" lecture by us early on and then by his school starting in about 4th grade. (It's part of the standard curriculum down here) He was fine until he hit high school when the hormones kicked in and he decided he was smarter on the computer than his father. Never mind that I work on them for a living. He lost privs on the computer for a while. and I've since found a Windoze registry hack that disallows History deletion.

I've been asked to recommend Spyware by several of my users over the years. Most have teenaged kids, mostly daughters. There's an impression, I think, that the boys will be searching out inappropriate viewing materials while the girls are at greater risk for inappropriate conversations and/or being preyed upon by unscrupulous adults. Most agree that the browser blockers (NetNanny, etc) don't do enough. Theyblock browser access to a predefined list of websites and then can be customized to include websites based on keywords. These only block access, however, they don't do anything about IM or chat rooms found in various websites.

The more comprehensive Spywares will at least capture keystrokes, thus giving a parent a better idea of what's going on. It is, however, just one side of the conversation, as it were. Other Spyware will do the keystrokes as well as screen captures at user-defined intervals.

Windoze users have a greater variety of Spyware to choose from, with Golden Eye being one more reliable titles. The Macside has been much slower to develop such oversight tools. ( lists one, Spector, and lists WebPeek, which sends screen captures to a remote FTP server for later viewing)

Software, regardless of how good it is may keep us out, but our kids are going to be far more computer literate than we are. And, if nothing else, the Challenge of defeating our safeguards will be extremely appealing.

I wish I had a workable answer (I'd be rich) beyond trying to teach our kids right from wrong and instilling morals, etc. If nothing else, eventually they'll be on their own one day with better, faster computers and network connections, meaning not only will they be able to get to stuff anyway, but they'll be able to get to it faster.

I just read an article somewhere about new technology allowing parents to set up their childrens' cell phones with only pre-approved numbers - tracking the minutes, etc. It would be nice to have this feature online but you know more about how that technology translates than I do.

I think it's great that you are thinking this through "out loud" with the rest of the online community - it's the best way to come up with the best answers and/or solutions.


Its interesting reading you perspective as a parent of an older (teen??) child. My son is 3 years old and my wife and I were talking about this whole issue this week.

Additionally for us, we have kept a blog/journal since his birth which outlines his experiences in his voice. After talking with Foe at eTech, I've been thinking/wondering a lot about how this blog will be taken by him as he gets older and how his school friends will take it/make use of it.

At some time we'll hand over the blog to him which will in itself be interesting.

Not having any historical examples of how this plays out makes it hard to figure out what the "right", if there is a right, way of handling it.


As I was reading the entry and the comments, I was wondering how folks engage the upcoming generation in a conversation about drugs. I had in the back of my mind Timothy Leary's meditations on information technology and altered states of consciousness.
And coincidently just as I had read through the comments there at the very end was spam advertising a vigour providing drug.

In reading about the rule-breaking episode (no Instant Messaging with people who have not been prescreened by parental control), I was wondering about the time I myself or my siblings broke rules or tried to renegotiate their application. They had less to do with "who" and more with "when". And of course this leads me to speculate that instead of filtering content (a post-event type of control) strategies could be built on timed access to the applications that permit access to content (e.g. limiting use to so many minutes per day). The resulting economy of scarce time resources might provide some discipline for respecting negotiated rules. I think some of this parental-young person relation is influenced by the fact that young people are not workers. That is their time is not structured by responsibilities to earn a living hence the "free time" and the tension that arises in guiding a responsible consumption of time. In brief, a clock and compass approach may provide a way to engage.

"I wish I had a workable answer (I���d be rich) beyond trying to teach our kids right from wrong and instilling morals, etc. If nothing else, eventually they���ll be on their own one day with better, faster computers and network connections, meaning not only will they be able to get to stuff anyway, but they���ll be able to get to it faster."

I come at this, not as a parent, but as a teacher of teenagers. I don't have kids of my own, but I teach college freshmen every day of the week. What strikes me is their combination of sophistication & innocence. One of my brightest students--a girl with a perfect "coed" look--walked into class yesterday wearing a hot pink t-shirt with the bold white words across her breasts: "Want Some?" This is a young woman with at least a nacent feminist outlook. She is in many ways about as far from clueless as I can imagine. She is fearless in class discussions.

When I mentioned this young woamn to my wife, she said, arching an eyebrow, "Maybe she's just really comfortable with her sexuality." Then she reminded me that the girl's parents are no doubt younger than me & that times have changed. So, I experienced the Summer of Love as a teenager & now I've become some sort of guardian of what is propper? I don't know, it's all so confusing. What brought all this to mind is that when she walked into class my first thought was: I wonder what her father would think of that shirt. Now, this student is legally an adult & she can do whatever she wants. (I know I did.) It's not what she does in private that worries me. What I don't know & obviously can't ask is whether she knows what the words on her shirt mean in public. Negotiating the public sphere is something that has to be learned, online or off.

And that is what connects my little story to the broader problem of youn people & social software. That t-shirt is, clearly, a form of social software.

I have been using keylogger for about two years now. I used it with my 17 year old son while he was living at home. I also use it with my daughter, who is 15. I did the ethical debate and decided that I needed to know where my children were surfing, and to whom they were writing.

The results have been incredibly painful. They have stressed my marriage and caused me personal pain.

We are not meant to KNOW the inner thinkings of our children, any more than we are meant to know the inner thinkings of our spouses or partners.

I think my students could benefit from this excerpt. I will conclude it on my blog.


I agree with your point about debating ideas. I offered your link to my college freshman students since we have started blogging this semester and simply told them to respond. (These are not the instructions, just my thoughts--I sent those via email.) Perhaps I should have given more careful instructions re: their critical thinking, but I do think that your response will teach them a lesson in online publishing and audience. Honestly, that has been my overall goal. I agree with your decision about removing comments you don't agree with also--just wanted to explain my involvment in this process.


Ah...didn't realize that was a class-related blog.

Yes, I think there's huge value to students in realizing that the web "talks back" in this context. :)

Glad you agree! And have just read your backchannel post and realize it might be those comments you're originally speaking of deleting since my students didn't visit your blog and post a negative comment. Either way, here's to more conscious posts! :)

It's to damn long peoples!!>:/ -_-




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on March 28, 2004 3:22 PM.

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