Monday, March 23, 2009

Social Networking and Teens

So, is this reason number infinity plus or minus the square root of pi to homeschool? Or reason number six (give or take) to be wary about letting one's teens use the Internet's social networking sites? Or, perhaps, a bit of both? Details:
A 14-year-old Fort Worth middle school student was stabbed in the chest with a pair of scissors today as she fought with a classmate over comments posted on a MySpace page, police said.

The girl was stabbed at repeatedly during the fight at Handley Middle School, 2801 Patino Road.

Barbara Griffith, a Fort Worth school district spokeswoman, said the MySpace argument was about a posting during spring break. She did not know where the fight took place at the school or where the scissors came from.

The injured girl suffered two shallow, non-life threatening puncture wounds, Fort Worth police said. The other girl was taken to the Tarrant County juvenile detention facility.

One would-be wit below the story comments, "This is why I use Facebook. Myspace (sic) is full of hoodlums."

In all honesty, one of the reasons I haven't jumped on the social networking bandwagon is because I have three daughters, one just barely a teen, the other two teetering on the brink of adolescence. They see everything I do on the computer (my computer is in the living room/school room, very visible) and enjoy the fact that we can use it together to enhance our homeschooling, to turn a discussion about refracting and reflecting telescopes into visits to places like this one or this one, to play clever games and explore faraway places, to communicate with family and friends via emails, and even to write blog posts and invite conversation.

And they want to do all of those things. Soon they will want to do them by themselves.

They're allowed a little (supervised) use of email. They're allowed some access to games--again, with strict supervision. If they need to use a search engine to investigate something, though, they have to ask me to do it; I've told them why, and that it's easy to click on a link thinking you're going somewhere safe when you're actually being directed to something immodest or scary. We've talked a little about the dangers of the Internet, and of talking to strangers, but those talks will get more pointed and more specific when they know a little more of the world than they do now. As for blogging: I think it's a great way for young people to learn to write, after they've learned the basics of grammar and composition, and taken a typing class or two. And they'd have to have a private blog, and invite family members only to view it.

But social networking is something that looks "cool" and "fun" to my girls, even though they've never used any of these sites. It's not that surprising, really. Teenage girls are quick adopters of communications technology, like cell phones and text devices, so they're equally eager to try out websites that promise instant access to their friends. And this is true even if their friends tend to be cousins, other homeschooled kids, and the like whom they can easily communicate with via that old-fashioned thing called the telephone.

Sure, some of the dangers of social networking sites can be minimized for teens and children, using methods such as supervision, setting strict rules about who can or who can't have access to one's page or deck or account, and setting even stricter time limits about how often they can be on the site to check for messages from friends and leave new ones. But the slightly-greater addictive properties of these sites compared to other types of computer use, the pressure to respond to anybody and everybody else's messages no matter how much time that takes, the chance that an inadvertent click will let others read what was supposed to be private, and the fact that your friends' friends' friends may end up being able to read what you're posting even if you don't know them and have no idea who they are make me shiver a little, as a watchful parent--it doesn't take very long for someone to be put at risk in situations like these, and children often lack the awareness to realize that they've inadvertently made themselves vulnerable.

And then there's the situation like the one in the story above. Imagine if, when you were a teenager, it had been possible in a fit of pique to make sure that not only the target of your anger, but also her closest friends, family members, etc., could see just how angry and upset you were--and that the comment you wrote in a fit of momentary teen anger had been left to fester over all of spring break. Well, we don't have to imagine--what happened next made the news.

Sure, teens can fight and argue and even become violent without the help of social networking sites, and did so before anybody even dreamed of them; MySpace didn't make the girl in the story attack the other girl. But maybe if a comment-type of "flame war" hadn't gotten so far out of hand, things might not have reached this point without the adults in these girls' lives realizing that the two of them were having a problem with each other, and offering advice and help.

We parents have the duty to make all sorts of decisions on behalf of our kids. But I think we have to be aware that what our parents used to tell us, that actions speak louder than words, is true, too. Our children see what we're doing online, and it's only natural for them to want to do those things, too, as soon as possible, as soon as they're old enough. My current way of thinking is that children should be near adulthood before they can have access to social networking--old enough for the "coolness" and the hype to have worn off, old enough to make their own decisions about how much free information they want to give to marketers, old enough to shrug and "un-friend" anyone whose behavior or comments get out of control without feeling hurt or damaged by the experience, and old enough to evaluate social networking as they evaluate all other Internet tools, to decide whether these sites are really useful to their lives or a drain on their time and productivity.

It's our job as parents to prepare our children for the world, not to let the world make them over in its image. Social networks may be one new thing we have to ponder carefully before letting our kids have access to these places on the web. But making those decisions on their behalf, until they're old enough to make the decisions on their own, is an important part of our job.

1 comment:

Deirdre Mundy said...

I'm afraid I have to disagree with you on this one. MySpace didn't cause the attack-- the type of chikld who stabs another with scissors would have found another reason to do the same thing...

And I know a number of home-schooled teens who use Facebook-- And they use it the way it was intended--to keep up with far-flung friends and relatives, to organize events, etc. Of course, all their PARENTS are on facebook too, so if they posted anything inappropriate, I imagine there'd be some repercussions at home.

Social Networking sites aren't any better or worse than telephones, email, or hanging out on the corner with abunch of friends, IMO -- it's all about knowing your kid and knowing what she's up to!