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
• Keep the computer in the kitchen or a downstairs room where you can monitor use. Don’t allow your kids to have phones, phone chargers or computers in their bedrooms.
• Stay plugged-in to their activities. Tell your kids, “I need your passwords and I need to know who your online friends are.” Then check up on their activities.
• Tell kids they are not allowed to go into online chat rooms.
• Boys tend to be riskier online than girls and share more personal information and offline meetings with people they know only online.
• Google Buzz should be off-limits for tweens. The social networking tool is offered to g-mail users, providing exchange of messages, photos, and videos. A tween who uses g-mail to stay in touch with grandparents might easily set up a Google Buzz account.
The Rules of Digital Citizenship
• We don’t want our kids to receive demeaning messages — or send them.
• If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it on Facebook or on any other social network.
• Remind tweens and teens that the Internet isn’t private. Once photos and messages go live, they can be copied, cut, and pasted.
• The most common form of cyberbullying occurs when someone forwards a private email, instant message, or text message or posts a message publicly.
• Don’t let kids do too much, too soon. One parent regrets giving his tween permission to post a video on YouTube. His son proudly played a song on his guitar, and later found mean-spirited reviews from strangers in his inbox.
• If a child isn’t mature enough to handle the responsibilities that come with being a digital citizen, revoke privileges or close his social networking accounts.
• Tell kids not to share their passwords with friends.
• Know that the Formspring.me site opens kids to receiving messages which are sent anonymously. The site links to Tumblers, Twitter and Facebook accounts. Messages are based on a question-and-answer format
• When kids are targeted by a cyberbully, most hide it from their parents. They’ll tend to share the problem with their parents if they surf online or play games together. Bullies should be blocked and victims should not respond to threatening or defamatory messages. Some cases may warrant informing the local police department.