My 17-year-old daughter had just updated her Facebook status — “Orchestra auditions today, wish me luck!” — when the first comment appeared seconds later. “Go girl!” a friend wrote. A dozen more encouraging messages poured in moments later, including one from a cousin and a shout-out from Grandma: “You can do it, Maddie!!!!” My daughter gleefully clicked the “Like” button next to Grandma’s comment and updated her status: “Thanks, everyone! :)”
When Maddie turned 13 — Facebook’s minimum age standard for joining (in accordance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) — I allowed her to open an account. I confess I was uneasy at first, but now, four years later, I can take pride in my leap of faith. My daughter’s membership in the online social community has helped her to blossom and develop in unexpected ways. She’s connected with a wide range of supportive friends, for instance, and deepened relationships with family members.
No matter how familiar you are with Facebook or online social networks in general, you likely have some anxiety about your child entering that world. But like it or not, they’re here to stay, and children are feeling its tug.
Sign of the Times
Honing social skills has always been a crucial part of a child’s development. It begins at home and branches out into traditional peer settings, such as preschool and playgrounds, and continues into adulthood. Today, more and more of the socializing we used to do in person happens digitally. Whether it’s on Facebook, by text, or on photo-sharing sites, we build and maintain many interpersonal relationships online.
Make no mistake — kids are in on the act and hungry for more. Virtual social networks created especially for children as young as 5 have taken off. While that may give you pause, there are many positives. According to the Digital Youth Project, a three-year study by the MacArthur Foundation, online socializing allows kids to pick up a good chunk of the interpersonal and technological skills they’ll need to excel in a contemporary world. Many experts focus on other benefits as well such as exercising creativity and self-exploration, practicing writing and typing, and learning to handle social challenges in safe forums.
Is She Ready?
“There’s a lot of panic about the risks of online social networks for kids,” says Nancy Willard, Internet safety expert and author of Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly, “but there are actually more risks associated with riding a bike. Parents sometimes seem unable to put this into perspective.”
Most of us feel better able to protect our kids in social situations that occur within traditional settings, because, for one thing, we can literally see what’s going on. However, we tend to forget that the vast majority of socializing happens out of our sight — in school, at recess, at soccer practice.
In reality, it can be easier to monitor your child’s social experiences online than offline. There’s often a trail of digital bread crumbs in the form of postings, photos, or instant messages that allow you to follow your child’s interactions with her friends, which you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do. As a starting point, agree with your child that you will both have her password, as I did with Maddie.
Despite these technological advances, there is one thing that hasn’t changed when it comes to a child’s social development — the importance of parental presence and intuition. Your child needs coaching, guidance, and encouragement as she navigates her way through friendships and other relationships with peers, whether in person or online. The bottom line is parents need to be involved. That is what helps keep our children safe.
Determining if your child is ready to socialize online is similar to figuring out readiness for age-appropriate offline activities. A child who asks permission to play at the park, for instance, who is respectful to friends, and can leave when you say it’s time can most likely participate in the same way in an online environment. A child who has a harder time controlling impulses, paying attention, and following rules might require more guidance and limits. Trust your instincts based on what you know about your child and how he handles responsibility.
Taking an interest in his online activities from an early age can also help to establish a foundation for future conversations between you as he begins to navigate social networks and the Internet independently. But before your child engages online, talk with him about what it means to be private, responsible, and kind. Let him know that he should not say or do anything online that he wouldn’t do either at school or at the dinner table.
So what happens if your little one doesn’t participate in supervised social networking? Will he be left behind? Whatever the reason — be it his lack of interest, your values, or family budgeting — there’s no reason to worry, as long as he has plenty of opportunities to engage in the activities every kid needs: interacting with peers, learning, playing.
But bear in mind that we live in a digital age and that helping your child develop smart online habits and skills early is a must. If you recognize that there is very little separation between face-to-face social time and online social time for young people today, you’re one step ahead already. The two environments work together to create today’s modern social experience. Children will need practice in a digital realm as they fine-tune their abilities to connect with peers.
Granting children access to an online social network is a parental decision. But used in moderation, social networks exercise many of the skills that children will need in the future.
Sharon Cindrich is the mother of two tech-savvy kids and the author of A Smart Girl's Guide to the Internet. Visit her website at pluggedinparent.com.