CNN recently reported that kids are using social networks in increasing numbers; some flouting (with or without parental consent) the age requirements on public networks like Facebook and MySpace, others using social networks like Webkinz and Club Penguin created just for kids.
Setting aside (for the moment) the ethical issue of a parent letting a tween register for a site that expressly prohibits children under the age of 13, why DO kids want to be on social networks? The article trotted out the usual response -- "their friends are there" -- and followed up with the now-familiar refrain: but is it GOOD for them and are they SAFE?
All well and good, and there will probably never be too many articles on online safety. But there's nothing really new in these stories, except the increasing numbers of people online. So, instead of writing more about the parenting challenge of raising digital kids, this week, I thought I'd change it up a bit and get the kid's eye view. No, not about dealing with clueless noob parents (see the forum for my rant about that stereotype).
What do they think is so great about the Internet?
I turned first to a website called Radical Parenting. Started by an entrepreneurial young woman Vanessa Van Petten, Radical Parenting promises parenting from the kid's perspective. I was certain she would have plenty of good content and strong opinion about the Internet, social networks and online safety .
I was not disappointed. There is a whole series called Growing up Online that offers advice on everything from
The Internet Talk: Parent Talking Points for Each Age Here I break down the Internet talk into talking points and topics for each age group to help parents. The Internet talk is the new sex talk
iPod Addiction: 8 Pros vs Cons and How to Balance Do your kids have perma-earbuds in their ears? I worry about the constant need for young people to listen to music all the time.
You'll also find articles written by guest contributors like Life Without Facebook by 16-year old Rachel who reported:
So I was grounded from the computer because I kept sneaking on my Facebook while doing my homework. That meant no Facebook, no instant messaging, no cell phone. After even the first 8 hours of grounding, I felt like an alcoholic that hasn’t gotten his habitual drink. I couldn’t update my status; how would anyone know what I’m doing? I couldn’t reply to my wall posts or retaliate on my bidding wars over my friends. I couldn’t even visit my friend’s Facebook group he made for help in math class. I felt cut off from the world. I mean, I got 15 notifications MINIMUM each day. How was I supposed to reply back?
Let me tell you, that was the longest week I had. Cold turkey was hard but after I couldn’t do anything else, I became more focused on my homework. I still visit Facebook more than I should, but now I know how to better prioritize my life.
And from 14-year old Vivian, The Pros and Cons of Facebook:
Although Facebook can be a black hole in one’s life, it also has been a blessing in disguise. I suddenly know much more about my friends and my classmates that I occasionally talk to, and I am able to see their photos more easily. Also I am able to remember their birthdays and talk to them more effortlessly. Homework help is within reach, too!
I personally think Facebook is a great tool if used wisely. It should not suck up one’s whole entire life but it should be used as how I have recently tried to use it: in moderation.
Then I wandered over to Internet safety site Get Netwise, where I found good, if slightly outdated, resources on online safety, but no kids' voices.
Next stop: the website of Internet safety advocate Larry Magid. Larry has been devoted to this issue for years, and his site links to many great resources for parents. While I didn't find kids' voices there either, I was pleased to see his report from the third annual conference of the Family Online Safety Institute:
The event, which drew participants from 15 countries, was different from previous years in that young people were viewed less as potential victims of online crimes and more as participants in a global online community.
That’s not to say that participants didn’t worry aloud about youth safety, but instead of focusing on real and imagined dangers, we focused on how adults can work with young people to encourage both ethical and self-protective behavior. It’s all about media literacy, digital citizenship and critical thinking.
This was a big change from just a couple of years ago, when Internet safety gatherings typically focused on ways adults could put up walls to protect children against predators, pornography and other dangers.
With further digital searching turning up more of the same in news reports and on parental control software websites, I decided to turn to my personal source for digital kids' data, my nine-year old son Douglas.
Here's what he had to say, once I could drag his attention (briefly) away from the online computer game he was playing.
What do you like about the Internet?
I like it because I can play my favorite games and blow things up. Like with this game Stormwinds: The Lost Campaigns on 4KidsTV.
What sites do you like?
4KidsTV, Club Penguin, You Tube, Neopets, 39 Clues
What do you like about Club Penguin?
I like being a secret agent and a tour guide although I never get to give tours. I also have every style puffle except the green one.
Do you ever chat with people on Club Penguin?
People you met on Club Penguin or people you already know?
People I met on Club Penguin.
Do you feel safe when you are on the Internet?
But you know there are bad people who might try to talk to you online, right? What would you do if that happened -- if something or someone made you uncomfortable online?
On Club Penguin, I would tell a moderator.
And if you weren't on Club Penguin?
I would just go away.
How about 39 Clues. What do you like about it?
You get to do missions.
So you like sites where you get to do things more than ones where you talk to other people?
What about on YouTube. Have you ever seen a video that made you uncomfortable?
What would you do if you did. What if you ran across a video of people having sex?
Then I would call the police.
Why the police?
Because I would want to.
Do you know all your passwords?
No, but I am usually already logged in.
What do you do when you can't remember a password?
I get it to print out because there's usually a button for that. [Mom begs to differ. What he really does is yells for me or his father to come figure out his password.]
What do you think are good ages for kids to play Webkinz and Club Penguin?
Webkinz, three to five years old. As long as the kid or the dog doesn't chew the Webkinz you're okay. Club Penguin, any age. [A few of his Webkinz are missing eyes and other parts due to the family dogs.]
What do you want to be when you grow up?
A computer game maker.
What did I learn from our interview? Generally, my son has a pretty good attititude about the Internet and a general idea of what to do if something ever made him uncomfortable, although I plan to reinforce that he could also come tell me or his father. No real need to call the police. The blow things up bit? That's part of being a parent to a boy. Sad but true, even if you don't give them a toy gun, all they need is a thumb and index finger and they'll make their own.
I did think it was interesting that he likes sites with action and games more than talking and social activity. I wonder if that's gender or age related, both or neither? I was also amused at the very young age range he gave for Webkinz. He didn't even have one until he was six, as you do need to be able to read to play Webkinz. That's definitely the Barney-Elmo effect -- once a kid has aged past something, it immediately becomes babyish and despised.
I plan to repeat this exercise every six months or so. Keep it very informal, no big deal, so it's a conversation, not an interrogation. I'll be very curious to see if/when his interests shift as he gets older. I'll let you know.
Have you ever talked to your kids about their online activities this way? What did they say?
Susan Getgood is a marketing and social media consultant. She blogs professionally at Marketing Roadmaps and also writes a personal blog Snapshot Chronicles and a family travel blog Snapshot Chronicles Roadtrip. She is a co-founder of BlogwithIntegrity.com, and recently started work on her first book.