FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski combined a pitch for broadband access, concerns over how parents of kids who already have that access can help monitor and guide their kids' online experience, with a recognition of the value of social networks and Web sites.
That came at an FCC digital back-to-school panel discussion at the commission Thursday morning, the second year in a row it has provided that forum.
The chairman in his opening remarks said broadband held the promise of lightening backpacks the nation over through digital textbooks and connecting kids with the best teachers and information available. But to do that, the government needed to make sure that technology was accessible to all, or some could be left behind.
He also put in a plug for broadband job creation from sites like eBay and Amazon.
But saying that teenagers consume an average 11 hours per day of media across all platforms, and more than half admit to having texted while driving -- "Don't" he said, with emphasis -- he quickly turned the discussion to navigating the pitfalls and seizing the opportunities of broadband for those who were already connected, with an emphasis on how to deal with social networking.
Helping accentuate the positive in social networking and online surfing was MTV VP of public policy Jason Rzepka, who participated in the panel discussion with Genachowski, online child safety group representatives and others.
Genachowski asked Rzepka about social networking. He pointed out that Facebook has a policy of not allowing kids under 13 to open accounts, but asked how parents should think about when it was appropriate for their own child.
Rzepka, who got a big cheer from the kids in the audience when he was introduced as from MTV, said joining social networks in this day and age was an inevitability, and that there were many positives to the experience. He said it depended on the kids and their relationship to their parents, the latter which he suggested was the key. He discouraged "overfocus on the negatives" of the net and social networks, or painting it as giving kids access to something that will give them "terrible problems." Instead, he said, "it is like deciding when they can get the keys to the car," saying kids need to learn first how to use these powerful tools, which is where parents need to be involved, with some help from MTV, which has online tools for good online decision-making.
Genachowski agreed that the positive powers of new technology were important, and that it is impossible to pretend the new technologies don't exist, but that parents needed more guidance for decisions like when to let their kids join Facebook. Rzepka said a key was to have rules of the road -- friending your kids for example -- though he also pointed out in his initial comments that many kids had second accounts their parents knew nothing about. But he also advised parents not to overreact, saying kids are afraid to tell their parents what is happening online for fear they will lose their smart phones or computers.
Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), said his 12-year-old daughter had said all her classmates were already on Facebook -- some studies suggest there are actually millions of underage users -- when asking to join. His response: Not until you are 13 and only if she agreed to sign a family safety pledge, including that she would have to let him friend her, and that he would occasionally check the content and ask her to take it down if he found it objectionable.
Genachowski pointed out to Rzepka that there are some great things on MTV, but some other "stuff" parents say their kids aren't ready for. He asked how parents navigate their kids away from the latter.
Parents need to be the first line of defense, Rzepka agreed. But with a huge universe of cable channels and the "infinite" universe online, he said, parents can't police everything, nor he suggested should they. It comes down to teaching their kids lessons and giving them guidance upfront, he said. . Rzepka said MTV has a mix of programing, from the inspiring -- Genachowski saluted its efforts in support of Darfur -- to the "more salacious"; he did not elaborate. But youth is all about testing boundaries, he argued, pointing out that parents used to say watching MTV music videos was rotting their kids brains. He suggested some of the parents in the room had watched them and turned out alright.
Rzepka said MTV was trying to help parents and kids navigate that online universe with athinline.org, a subsite with tips, games and conversations about issues like the thin line between hate speech and free speech. Online bullying is a big concern of Genachowski and some key members of Congress.
Genachowski said he would put the MTV site, copies of Common Sense media's family safety contract and other tools on the FCC web site.
Another site with tips on combatting cyberbullying is here.