An Over of Web-related Issues for Parents
The lives of our children are increasingly linked to the Internet. Whether the web is used for schoolwork or play, intellectual or social pursuits, children of all ages are plugged in. “Kids feel that they have to be online if they want to be connected,” observes Dr. Mark J. Klein, psychologist at Human Relations Service in Wellesley. “It is the virtual street corner where kids are hanging out, twenty-four hours a day.”
Social Networking Sites
Our children have readily embraced social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Xanga. According to a recent study conducted by the National School Boards Association, 96 percent of American students with online access use social-networking technologies; further, the average American child between the ages of nine and 17 spends nine hours a week on the social web.
Social networking sites offer a new and exciting way for kids to spend time together. “Online socializing is a by-product of kids’ busy lives,” offers Klein. “Their lives are so structured and busy, these sites give them a way to be in touch when they do have time.”
What do kids do on social networking sites? The NSBA study found that most kids are involved in creative endeavors, such as talking and sharing music, videos, and photographs. Central to participation is the “profile,” a self-created page upon which users post information about themselves. Details vary by Web site and users have discretion about the level of personal detail they post. Photos and video can be uploaded, and members communicate with each other privately by e-mail, or publicly, by writing on one another’s “walls.”
“Socializing online can be particularly useful for shy kids, who feel less inhibited online, and are able to build relationships,” suggests Klein. Such sites can also create an avenue for kids to reach out to others at the times when they need it most. “Online networking has saved kids from disaster,” observes Klein. “It can be a way to cry for help; kids have averted disasters with their responses.”
While social networking sites are attractive—and at times addicting— to young people, they can also be a source of social angst. The number of online friends and the quantity of messages on walls are often viewed as indicators of popularity. Kids frequently expand their circle of contacts to include people whom they do not know personally, and spend significant time online posting notes on other people’s walls, in the hope of having myriad hits to their page.
Perusing friends’ walls can be fun, or devastating, depending upon whether the viewer was invited to the party documented on friends’ pages. New features on Facebook raise the potential embarrassment and humiliation factor: you can now compare friends online and signal your significant other—and the rest of the world—when they are not as significant anymore.
Cyber-bullying takes the embarrassment and humiliation level up a notch. Such harassment can range from posting—and in some cases altering—private conversations and photographs, to sending or publishing threatening or offensive comments, extortion, or enticing others to do criminal acts. A surprising 72 percent of kids say they have experienced online harassment. This is serious stuff: Kids who have been harassed online are three times as likely to exhibit signs of severe depression due to the global scope of the medium and its 24/7 nature.
A loss of personal privacy can be another risk of social networking sites. Self-exposure is the whole point of these sites and, as a result, young people can be rather indiscriminate about what they share and with whom. What users do not always understand is that the whole world can see what they post unless they use privacy settings. Such security measures allow users to restrict access to their profile to subgroups of friends, friends-of-friends, or people within a given network—perhaps their school or town.
Here is the downside: None of these privacy features is impenetrable and every social networking site’s small print says so. Employers and college admissions officers have been known to deny a job or college admittance based upon information found online. Several college students have faced disciplinary action—or been expelled—because of inappropriate content discovered on their pages. Even if their profile is clean, compromising information can be gleaned from “tagged” postings on friends’ pages.
Further, once information is posted, it cannot be taken back. Screen shots of profiles can be stored on other people’s hard drives and cached on archival Web sites, long after they have been deleted. In the wrong hands, this information can be used against your child, tomorrow, or decades from now. They can also be used to implicate parents who are legally responsible for their children’s actions, especially if alcohol is involved.
When we think of social networking sites, we often do not think of online games; however, many games require users to communicate with each other in real-time, using instant messaging or voice-over-internet-phone-calling (VOIP), in order to solve a challenge and advance in the game. “VOIP is unsupervised and informal communication that is beyond IM and texting,” says Klein. “Players are actually communicating by voice with other players in the context of the game. There is a lot of socializing going on and many chances to talk about who you are and where you live.”
Here is the potential catch: “Online friends seem to be friends, but their motives are often unclear,” explains Klein. Approximately 20 percent of kids online receive unwanted sexual solicitations. In a process known as “grooming,” online predators befriend game partners and research profiles and chats to lure children into meetings for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Often known to lie about their age and interests, such predators build relationships with young people by discussing their interests and sympathizing with their problems.
Another challenge for gamers is knowing when to call it quits. Klein knows first hand; the first time he played World of Warcraft, he stayed up almost all night engrossed in the game. “These games are so incredibly rich, stimulating, compelling, and addicting,” describes Klein. “I strongly suggest setting strong limits [on kids’ computer playing time] because some of these games are so intoxicating kids can’t control themselves. They will play to the extent of ignoring hygiene, basic bodily needs, and participation in their household.”
Online File Sharing
Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networks are popular with young persons (and many adults!) as they allow users to download files containing music, video, and photographs directly from another person’s computer, free of charge. P2P software, such as Kazaa, Limewire, and BitTorrent, are available as a simple download from the Internet. Members of P2P communities can be located anywhere in the world and can download single files or an entire hard drive.
While this technology is exciting, especially in its ability to expand bandwidth, there are several associated risks, including accidentally downloading viruses or spy ware, transferring inappropriate information like pornography, violating copyright law, and, if mis-configured, exposing your entire hard drive to other users.
There are plenty of suggestions for Internet rules out there (see the Web site suggestions below); however, most industry experts believe that these rules are not always effective with kids. Brain development is partially to blame. While young people may be cognitively aware of the risks of life online, the area of their brains associated with impulse control and judgment is still maturing. This mismatch can lead to poor judgment online.
A second explanation has to do with control. “One of the things that is appealing to young people about the Internet is that they are their own bosses there—it is one area where they know more than the adults in their lives,” observes Kline.
As the first generation of parents facing these issues, perhaps the best advice we can heed is one final suggestion about the Internet from Klein:
“Kids are doing it and are going to keep doing it, so we have to appreciate what they are getting out of it; we have to put the Internet monitoring software inside our children, an internal moral compass that will guide them to come to the right conclusions.”