I was in a kindergarten class the other day on an in-school child evaluation when I overheard a little girl talking with a friend. She was explaining how her brother and mother played on "Spacebook" all of the time and that she wanted one too. Her friend nodded enthusiastically in agreement. I thought to myself that only in the 21st century would 5 year-olds be having such a conversation.
Currently, more than 8 out of 10 adolescents/young adults have an active social networking account such as Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. But what is the right age or developmental level for a child to have a social networking account? Most people would probably agree that children shouldn't have these types of accounts until they are teens. But, should all teens who want an account be allowed?
A recent study on social media use by teens conducted by University of Virginia Psychologists showed that the psychological health and social adaptation of teens dictated whether they used social media sites appropriately. The study showed that well-adapted youths use social media to enhance their existing positive relationships. On the other hand, those who were poorly adapted, evidenced by behavioral problems or difficulty making friends, used social media sites in more inappropriate ways or not at all. They were more likely to post nude photos, use excessive profanity, or show more overt aggression or hostility in their postings.
Safety issues are still a large concern when it comes to the internet. As parents, it is important that your child use the internet appropriately for his or her own physical and psychological safety. Posting the wrong things or giving out sensitive information on-line could lead to significant consequences. Here are some things that you can do to make sure that your child uses the internet and social networking sites appropriately:
Introduce your child to the internet. Like any other topic (e.g. the "birds and the bees talk"/sexual education, handling bullying, etc.) you, as the parent, want to be doing the educating. You should be setting the stage for your child’s relationship with the internet.
Explain that on the internet, even though your child may be in a room alone, that he or she is not necessarily free from harm. Remind him or her that people can sometimes find their location, identity, and information stored on computers and to be careful with what information they share.
Make time to explore the internet together. Visit sites that are specifically designed for children or that are associated with your child’s particular interests.
Monitor your child's access to the internet from time to time. You may also want to install parental internet guards or filters that won't allow kids to unknowingly go to inappropriate or dangerous Web sites.
Limit the amount of time that a child can be on the internet on a nightly basis. Spending too much time on-line can lead to symptoms of depression, social isolation, and obesity. If your children are spending time on the internet also make sure that they are getting adequate exercise and completing their homework, responsibilities, and chores.
If your teenager wants a social networking account, assess whether he or she is ready for one. Is your child old enough or mature enough to use a social networking site appropriately? As the University of Virginia study described, behavior in face-to-face interactions is a good indicator of behavior on social networking sites.
After assessing if they are ready, have an open conversation about the privileges and consequences regarding behaviors on social networking sites. Clearly lay out expectations and what would be deemed appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.
Monitor how your child is using social networking through intermittent conversations and open communication. If your child is exhibiting impulsive or out-of-control behavior, consider closing accounts or only allow them if they are closely supervised (such as having their login information or being "friends" with them on-line).
Taking these steps can help ensure that your child will have a fulfilling and safe internet experience. For more information on how to discuss internet safety with your children go to the National Crime Prevention Council and School District 129.