Officials, Facebook reps tout social media safety

Billings Gazette

by Zach Benoit

Worldwide, 800 million people actively use Facebook. Of those, 160 million are Americans and 460,000 hail from Montana. That's nearly half the state's population.

Local and state officials, along with Facebook representatives, told a crowd of about 100 Billings residents Thursday night that it's now more important than ever for parents and educators to teach what Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau calls "digital natives," or youngsters who've grown up knowing nothing but the digital age, about responsible social networking.

"Our focus is on strengthening online safety, especially in social networking," said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D.-Mont.

The meeting, organized by Tester, was held at Lewis and Clark Middle School. Speakers included Billings Mayor Tom Hanel, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock, Juneau, Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and Billings Public Schools Superintendent Jack Copps.

Corey Owens, Facebook's associate manager of public policy, said educating parents, children and teachers about the popular social networking service's built-in safety features can go a long way.

Those include using reporting features that allow users to flag content they feel is in appropriate or harmful, built-in restrictions on the accounts of users under the age of 17, blocking users and setting tight privacy settings that control who sees what kids post.

"The privacy settings on Facebook are always just one click away," Owens said. " … I encourage all the parents in the room to walk your children through the tools."

However, all of those safety tools are useless if kids aren't taught how to use them.

State officials said it needs to start with early education when kids are first signing on so they'll be comfortable with parental supervision and know the rules.

"Start the communication early with your kids, saying, 'You know what? I want to know what's going on in your life,' " Bullock said.

Many of those in the crowd were educators and expressed concern over students using social networking in ways that could set them up to get hurt.

Owens said that instances of bullying, harassment and people setting up fake profiles do happen. He advised that they use the reporting and blocking features for those instances but also said it's important to teach the kids that the online world can have consequences in the real one, especially since online postings stay put.

"The same adages that apply offline apply online," Owens said. "Don't talk to strangers."

Bullock likened it a 15-year-old learning to drive. He has to take driver's ed, learn "the rules of the road" and pass a driver's test before getting the keys to the car.

"We have rules for kids when they're at home," he said. "We need to have the same rules available for them to be aware of online."

Other concerns focused on how to actually teach kids and get the resources into homes and schools.

Bullock said his office has produced online safety DVDs for parents, kids and law enforcement. Owens said that Facebook has pages specifically designed to teach people about safety that are good resources.

"For us as adults, (our job is) to guide them to have those decisions with them, in the classroom and at home," Juneau said.

Tester said the idea for the meeting began to form about four months ago when Montana residents came to him with concerns about social networking.

After the meeting, he said he was pleased with the turnout, the information presented and the questions asked by the audience and stressed the importance of communication in the process.

"I think that it's really important that folks utilize those tools that are there," Tester said.