I admit that I am “new” to social networking and many of the activities (i.e., texting, Skype, etc.) in which children and teens engage. I opened a Facebook page two years ago at my daughter’s request so that I could view photos she posted when she went off to college. I found a totally different world on-line and while I do enjoy parts of it, other parts shock and frighten me. At this time I am going to focus on social networking sites only, but that does not mean there are not other concerns out in cyberspace.
Most social networking sites have an age limit of at least 14; however, no one is “verifying” that the people who open the pages are telling the truth about their age. There are many children who are part of Facebook and MySpace who are well below 14 year old. Most of the children this young do not understand all the “permissions” information when they are setting up their page and they leave horrifying amounts of personal information for the world to view. Believe it or not, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, stated age, birthdays are all available on most social networking pages, unless the information is restricted by the user.
If that alone is not scary enough, this is a completely new playground for all of those childhood/teen-age insecurities to take root. I remember when I was in middle school and high school. Many girls and boys “made up” reputations for themselves that were based primarily on fiction. They would profess to have done all sorts of things that they actually had not done and most of these activities were not worthy of bragging rights anyway. Drinking, drugs, sex, trips without adult supervision, parents who allowed the opposite sex to spend the night in their room, etc. It was bad enough when these stories were shared with fellow students in order to project a particular image; however, at least the damage remained within a small parameter.
Now the parameter is cyberspace, which is virtually unlimited! Children and teens meet people from all over the world on-line. Once they “friend” these people, they have access to all of their personal information, photos, comments, conversations, etc. Our children and teens do not know these people. The people they meet can be misrepresenting themselves to the same extent, if not moreso, than our children.
And our children/teens misrepresent themselves grievously. I recently had a 14-year old staying with me for a period of time. They had a Facebook account and I immediately sent them a “friend” request so that I could check out their activity. Many of the girls had skimpily-clad photos posted to their pages. Boys much too old for them were commenting on their bodies. Photos also contained profane gestures and actions. Conversations were full of profanity and outrageous statements. I can only imagine that the parents of these children/teens have no idea what their children do on-line. Most would be mortified that their 13- and 14- year old daughters are talking about their sexual exploits and their 14- and 15- year old sons are discussing the drinking and drugging they did the night before.
Before you decide I am going to the extreme, let me give you a few “grown-up” examples. I have over 200 “friends” on Facebook, but I actually know less than 15 of them. The remaining individuals send me friend requests because we play the same games and/or post on the same discussion boards. Children/teens are much more active on Facebook, so the number of individuals they come in contact with must be much greater.
Parents, provide supervision for your children/teens on-line, just like you would in your home or at outside activities. “Friend request” your kids and check out their pages – and the pages of their friends – on a regular basis. Report activity that is potentially dangerous to your children/teens. Know the people with whom your children/teens message, share photos, and chat. Give your children/teens specific guidelines as to the information they can share on-line and enforce those guidelines. Better yet, limit the amount of unsupervised time that your children/teens can spend on the internet. Install a good child-security program so that you can limit their access to inappropriate sites.
At this time, cyberspace is a new territory where rules and legalities are being explored and forged. Hopefully the laws that protect our children in real life will eventually evolve in cyberspace, but until they do, our children’s best advocates are their parents. Make the leap; don’t send your children/teens out into this new world alone.