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Educators weigh merits of social network sites

 

By Alex Pham and Alana Semuels

Los Angeles Times
November 19, 2007


Educators and advocates for children are debating whether social-networking websites should join lunchboxes, clothing logos and soda machines as a route for advertisers to reach kids in school.

A group that lobbies against advertising aimed at children has blasted a report issued by the National School Boards Assn. urging its 95,000 school board members to consider the educational merits of websites such as Facebook and MySpace.

The Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston on Friday called the report suspect because it was funded by News Corp., which owns MySpace, and Microsoft Corp., which in October bought a 1.6% stake in Facebook Inc. for $240 million.

The conflict highlights a persistent dilemma for schools over whether the benefits of new technology outweigh the drawbacks. With social-networking sites, the possible downsides include commercialization of classrooms and the diversion of resources to monitor students' online activities and protect them from predators and cyber bullies.

About 52% of school districts have banned access to social-networking sites in schools, according to a survey by the school board association, based in Alexandria, Va.

The association in July issued a report saying school districts "may want to consider reexamining their policies and practices and explore ways in which they could use social networking for educational purposes."

But because the report was funded in part by companies behind two of the most popular social-networking sites, the school board group should disavow its recommendations, said Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood at the Judge Baker Children's Center, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

"The report reads more like a public relations tool designed to allay educators' concerns about social networking than a serious investigation of the complex issues raised by introducing new commercialized technology into the classroom," Linn wrote in a letter to Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the school group.

In an interview, Bryant said corporate sponsors "have had absolutely no involvement in the survey or the writing of the report." She added that dismissing social-networking sites was tantamount to "putting one's head in the sand."

"What we are saying is that children already have access to these sites," Bryant said. "Let's have a conversation with parents and students about appropriate uses of social-networking sites."

The survey, which polled 1,277 students 9 to 17 years old, found that teens spent on average nine hours a week chatting, text messaging, blogging or visiting social-networking sites, compared with 10 hours watching TV.

The report's assessment of social-networking sites doesn't mention the potential effect of ads on children, Linn said.

"Surely, commercialism of these sites should be a factor," she said, "particularly since some of the products advertised on the sites are rum, vodka and cigarettes."

Facebook and MySpace said they filter out ads for tobacco for users who state they are under 18, as well as alcohol ads for users under 21.

But that net has holes, according to Charlene Li, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc.

"It's based on what age users say they are," Li said. "Kids often don't want people to know they're underage. In that case, there's very little these services can do to screen out inappropriate ads."

More than $15 billion was spent on marketing targeted at children in 2006, more than double the amount in 1992, via such avenues as school textbooks, children's gyms and the Internet, according to the Center for a New American Dream, which seeks to restrain the commercialization of culture.

Online advertising is especially problematic because it is hard for parents to monitor, said Monique Tilford, deputy director at the Takoma Park, Md.-based center.

Companies target children because of the "cradle-to-grave" concept -- the idea that kids sold on a brand when they're young will keep using it as they grow older, she said.

Advertisers will spend $21.4 billion on the Internet this year, according to research firm EMarketer Inc., which says that number will nearly double by 2011. Advertising on social-networking sites will increase from $900 million in 2007 to $2.5 billion in 2011, the research firm estimates.


 

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