As sharing spreads among teens, Google tries to keep it safe

Oct. 29, 2013 @ 10:33 AM

The atmosphere in the Granite Falls Middle School auditorium Monday morning was classic pep rally, but the setup was decidedly high-tech.

As conversations layered over each other into a low din, fresh-faced Google employees made their way to the stage, which was lined with glossy, 2-D illustrations of the subject matter at hand. A giant smartphone, twisting red gears, an arrow pointing to the right (the symbol for “share”) all shared space with red and green speech bubbles. “Hello Granite Falls MS!” one proclaimed. The other read: “You are what you share.”

That caution about sharing wasn’t referring to a sandwich passed from hand to hand in the cafeteria, or two noses leaning over a math book. This was Google’s attempt, through its Good to Know initiative, to educate students on the safe way to share information online.

Five years ago, or 10, a group of middle-schoolers might not have needed an Internet-safety talk. Today, though, 93 percent of teenagers spend time online, according to the Pew Research Center.  

So, statistically, the 550 or so sixth- and seventh-graders in the auditorium probably had about 500 active Internet users among them.

The goal was to scale down Google’s global Good to Know to an audience that’s sometimes easy to miss — middle-schoolers.

See google/page A5

That means the assembly was raucous, colorful and loud. The 45 minutes of instruction were based on games more often than not, pulling in popular culture for good measure. (“So, the ‘Gangnam Style’ video going viral was a good thing,” presenter Jacob Mader said. “But what if that photo or video that went viral was of you?”)

“There’s a lot of great information out there,” Google spokesperson Jamie Hill said. “But for middle-schoolers, you have to make sure it’s engaging.”

The strategy, Hill said, is to “blend the nutritious with the delicious.”

Mader and Nicole Premo – both Google employees internally trained for the program – broke down the basics of Internet safety. They had the kids practice creating good passwords – no “hello” or “11111” or “letmein.” They talked about adjusting social settings so that strangers, if you let them see anything, can’t see as much as your friends.

They cautioned against falling for online scams – and this, more than anything, was the segment where the kids seemed as savvy as the adults. As soon as the scam came onscreen – a fake Facebook status urging the reader to “click here to win a million dollars and see everyone who’s in love with you” – a low “Noooo” rolled through the audience.

The kids were urged to simply think before posting anything online. Would you want, the presenters asked, for that status to be seen by the whole school? How about the manager at your summer job? What about, a few years down the road, an admissions officer at your dream college?

Despite the necessary focus on dos and don’ts, the program’s content stayed light and primarily positive – not surprising for the search giant, which has formed much of its primary-colored brand around a sort of upbeat optimism (Google’s unofficial corporate motto is “Don’t be evil”).

Students were told to use social media to be kind to others – just to say something nice, for no other reason but that they could. At the assembly’s close, they were shown a video – one created to promote the Google Science Fair – highlighting people who “did amazing things” (or, in most cases, got started doing amazing things) when they were young.

So, will it work? Will this generation use social media and the Internet to change the world, straying away from its more dangerous implications?

Google’s tour will filter through other states and other auditoriums, trying to make that happen. But it’s really up to the students who, on Monday, filed out of their seats at Granite Falls Middle – with visions of the 14-year-old Edison, the 18-year-old Alexander Graham Bell, and a million Instagram photos floating through their minds.