I Wanna Be Connected
Is your tween venturing online? Have a talk about the do's and don'ts of social media.
Tweens ages 8 to 12 are fast coming up on the maze of interactive games and instant messages that make up the world of social networking. While your tween may now enjoy caring for a virtual Webkinz pet and playing online games with a classmate, more public avenues for social interaction await.
Tweens are eager to explore online, following after older siblings and parents. At some point, social networking tools will beckon: Twitter, Facebook, iChat, and Google Buzz, all popular with teens. Kids use social media to feel connected, to catch up with their peers, and to explore their own burgeoning identities.
So before your kid wanders into the digital maze, offer some guidance. “It’s the main way that teens are communicating. You can’t escape it,” notes Katherine House, a middle school counselor at St. Mary’s Episcopal School.
The risks associated with social media are numerous: Kids can hide their ages to log on to age-restricted sites, or network with strangers in chat rooms. And then there’s online gossiping and cyberbullying, behavior that’s become all too common.
Not only are tweens and teens new to social media, they’re at a developmental age where they are crafting their social identities, both in person and online. They may want to project themselves as cool and adventurous.
But kids must learn how to manage the anonymity that electronic messaging provides. Nearly all kids at some point will send a mean-spirited message they wouldn’t deliver face-to-face. “Kids are doing things and writing things they wouldn’t do in person,” says House. “It’s not only mean kids or bad kids. It’s all of our kids.”
Too often, kids dole out criticism via Facebook or send anonymous messages through Formspring. “Lots of feelings are hurt on Formspring. Don’t assume that just because you have a great kid, you don’t have to be vigilant,” says House.
Conflicts and social dramas that arise at school often are continued at home via texting or computer. Cyberbullying is defined as use of e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, pagers, cell phones, or other forms of information technology to harass, threaten, or intimidate. Making threats, posting provocative photographs, and using racial or ethnic slurs are also examples.
It pays to know what your kid is doing online and to learn about various social media tools. Collierville parent Andrea Whitfield is raising three daughters ages 9, 10, and 15. The computer plays a role in each of her children’s lives to varying degrees.
When her oldest daughter became active on Facebook during seventh grade, her mom quickly set limits. She knew her daughter’s password and as her Facebook “friend,” she could read her messages and stay updated on her social circle. They have some ground rules: don’t friend anyone you don’t know and don’t say anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t say to someone in person.
“As she earned my trust and matured, I allowed her to have a private password. But I can still stay in touch with who her online friends are,“ says Andrea.
When her daughter received a mean message from a peer, other friends came to her defense online, and the bully retracted the comment, saying “I was only joking.”
Firing off a hostile remark, then claiming it is “only a joke” is a common tactic, Andrea notes.
At first, her daughter was curious about Formspring, but now no longer visits the website. “I wanted to see what people said about me,” says the high school sophomore. “But there was too much drama and some of my friends would put people down and say mean things.”
Her mom knows that her younger daughters’ access to online social sites will depend on their maturity. “Just because my oldest daughter started on Facebook at 13 doesn’t mean her sisters will as well. They have to prove responsibility and self-discipline.”
Another Collierville parent, Laurie McArthur, decided her 10-year-old daughter will not have access to online social sites until she starts high school. Laurie is a plugged-in parent who knows the passwords for her 15-year-old daughter’s Facebook account and cell phone. She reads her daughter’s text messages and online postings.
“Kids will do stupid stuff they think they can get away with. I need to know what she is talking about and who she is dealing with,” says McArthur.
In her view, social media offers very little that’s positive for middle-schoolers. “Girls are mean in middle school and they have no sense of boundaries, they’ll carry on an argument in public.”
She also believes it’s up to parents to pass on information, should they learn it involves the well-being of another child.
“It takes a village to raise kids these days,” she says.
Help Your Kid Stay Safe Online
The Rules of Digital Citizenship