Youth Social Networking

I confess. I have a page on Facebook. I have it primarily because it allows me to stay connected to our kids. It also allows acquaintances, long lost cousins, and former students to find me online.

To be honest I’m not a huge fan. To me sites like Facebook just seem to lack meaning and substance.

Several weeks ago a keynote address at the World Leisure Congress in Quebec City by Dr.Linda Caldwell from Penn State helped me put my uneasiness into better perspective.

Intrigued by the fact that social networking Web sites are among the fastest growing on the Internet, she, as academics are inclined to do, did some research. She learned that it is tweens (kids 8-12) and teens (kids 13-18) who are driving that growth.

Among the most popular social networking sites are MySpace, Second Life, Friendster, Xanga, YouTube, and Facebook. All of them provide a place for kids to get together online with existing and new friends.

As she pointed out, these sites may be both a blessing and a curse.

She began by reviewing what youth need in their adolescent years in order to grow and develop. It is during these years that their identify forms, they build social connections, and gain competence and skill development. During these years they need opportunities for autonomy and choice and for feeling they are part of something bigger than themselves.

The Internet has the potential to meet many of these needs.

For example, for those who are lonely, feeling different or socially isolated, it is easy to connect and talk with others and to become part of a larger community. Unfortunately the same anonymity can also spawn hatred and violence.

The web also does nurture creativity and innovation. The famous webcam video of Gary the Numa Numa Guy miming to the song Dragostea din tei with some bizarre arm movements and facial expressions, became an Internet phenomenon when it was ultimately viewed by millions around the world.

Social networking also allows adolescents to experiment with their identities. In fact 53% admit to having pretended to be someone else online

However, Caldwell cautions that the adolescent predilection toward narcissism and self absorption is in fact promoted and accelerated by the Internet. In many cases, sites like Facebook really do promote the idea that “it’s all about me”.  In one particular case, a young guy named Noah took a picture of himself every single day for 6 years and then made a movie out of them.

So what does all of this mean to parents and families of tweens and teens?

When used cautiously, these sites are great ways for kids to communicate and share their experiences.

However, parents need to know where their kids go and what they do online. Ask them to show you any social networking site they want to join or have joined. Ask them to show you their profile and who their network friends are. Read and understand the privacy policies of the sites they visit or join. And, again, remind them not to reveal too much about themselves.

Invest in high-quality Internet software that will allow you to track all activity, including chats, email, and Web access. Let your kids know you will regularly check on what they are doing online and then be sure to do it.

Limit their time on the computer and keep computers in the common areas of your home, not in bedrooms, offices, or other rooms where kids can spend long periods of time unsupervised.

Today, socializing online is extremely popular among kids but for it to be safe and worthwhile it needs parental involvement, parameters, and supervision.

Even then we need to ask ourselves, can online networking ever replace the value of human touch, the thrill of competition and physical activity, learning tolerance and respect in real life communities, or the spirituality and joy of being in nature?  Probably not.

Posted on 10-19-08

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