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06 Feb, Monday
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Montreal Families

Socializing online is dangerous: myth or reality?

Many parents are concerned about the amount of time their children spend online, who they might be communicating with and if they are posting too much personal information on the web. These are all justified concerns but, with a few safety measures in place, social networking can be a healthy, positive activity for kids.

It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?” That call for parental vigilance from the 1970s and 1980s has a lot less meaning for parents of today’s school-aged children. Very often, our kids are home, eyes focused on a computer screen. While they may not be roaming the streets, are they any safer surfing the digital world?

“It’s an interesting irony that the kids we are interested in keeping out of harm’s way are actually at arm’s length, sitting in their bedrooms with their laptops,” says Dr. Michael Hoechsmann, Associate Professor at McGill University’s Faculty of Education.

But he suggests that it’s easy to get swept up in concerns about the dangers of these new technologies and parents should cut kids some slack. “Peer-to-peer communication is OK,” he says. “Social networking and instant messaging have, to a great extent, replaced the telephone and the street corner for youth communication. Kids are adapting new technologies to changing circumstances.”

One consequence of the increasing popularity of online social networking is that parents should have a more nuanced understanding of how time spent online encompasses various activities. Having a sense of the different sites their kids visit and the applications they are using will help parents understand what kinds of things they are doing online.

Dr. Hoeschmann, a parent of two boys ages 11 and 15, makes a distinction between using a computer for production and consumption. If his children are writing on a blog or posting a poem, for example, "I consider it the equivalent of time spent drawing or building a model." However, ‘"If they are just doing consumption online [such as watching YouTube videos or playing a game], I consider it only a slightly more active version of watching TV."

This new era of productive Internet usage is often called Web 2.0, which means that a significant portion of the content is generated by its users. Think MySpace, Facebook, YouTube or blogs, as well as new applications like Twitter, (which lets you update your blog or Facebook page from a cell phone, or send a text message to all of your friends at once).

These are places where varying levels of personal information are displayed, from status updates (“I’m cramming for the math test at the library”) to pictures and videos of last Saturday night’s party. Users are invited to review and update content as often as they like, from any computer or mobile phone.

While kids, teens and even their parents have embraced this technology, it does raise questions about privacy, personal safety and intimacy. Web 2.0 invites kids and teens to put details of their lives online, to comment on the postings of others and to engage in chat and information exchange with people from all around the world, most often without any adult supervision.

Social networking can help expand one’s circle of friends by taking the user beyond the small number of people they might meet in day-to-day life. “Something about interacting with strangers can be powerfully positive,” he says, pointing to kids with disabilities who can engage in a virtual community with their counterparts in other places, something that might be physically impossible in real time.

Danger of miscommunication

At the same time, the openness of the Internet also risks exposing them to people with less-than-friendly intentions. Communicating online seems to lower inhibitions about what can be said. It seems relatively easy to type something revealing, inflammatory or untrue when you don’t have to look into anyone’s eyes or see their reactions. Couple this with the greater potential for miscommunication and the fact that whatever is posted online can haunt you forever, and parents have reason to be concerned.

Dr. Hoechsmann says parents need to take some precautions to keep their kids safe online. “Make sure the computer screen faces a door,” he suggests, so that whatever they are doing is immediately apparent. “Active, but not intrusive involvement by parents in their kids’ Internet usage is very healthy behaviour.”

He suggests parents don’t let themselves get too carried away by media reports of hidden dangers lurking onscreen. “The myth of the stranger online has taken on monstrous proportions,” he says, pointing out that a teen online is no more likely to run into trouble than a teen on an unsupervised trip downtown with friends.

Dr. Hoechsmann notes that studies of adolescent Internet usage have found that most kids are using social networking applications to contact people they already know. “And this contact is frequently followed up by telephone [communication].”

“Kids need encouragement, advice and words of caution,” he adds, so that they can learn to evaluate information on websites, be sensible when posting information and images and avoid online bullying.

Dr. Hoechsmann remains optimistic that the social networking options on the Internet provide a balance of positive things for kids and teens.

He points to the ways in which Web 2.0 applications have led to the return of the written word in youth culture. “Kids aren’t just instant messaging in code, but also writing longer texts,” he notes. “My 11-year-old is a more proficient typist than I was in first year in university.”

Web 2.0 also offers young people a certain sense of liberation. “Kids today have such highly regulated, highly controlled and scheduled lives,” says Dr. Hoechsmann, calling this generation of children probably the most coddled in history. “Computers give them a kind of freedom that is missing elsewhere in their lives.”

Safety for younger children

Take extra steps to protect younger kids.
Keep the computer in an open area like the kitchen or family room so you can keep an eye on what your kids are doing online. Use the Internet with them to help develop safe surfing habits. Consider taking advantage of parental control features on some operating systems that let you manage your kids’ computer use, including what sites they can visit, whether they can download items or what time of day they can be online.

Go where your kids go online.
Sign up for – and use – the social networking spaces that your kids visit. Let them know that you’re there and help teach them how to act as they socialize online.

Review your child’s list of friends.
You may want to limit your child’s online “friends” to people your child knows and is friendly with in real life.

Safe socializing online

OnGuard Online, a website sponsored by the United States government, offers these tips for safe social networking:

Help your kids understand what information should be private.
Tell them why it’s important to keep some things – about themselves, family members and friends – to themselves. Information like their full name, social insurance number, street address, phone number, and family financial information — like bank or credit card account numbers — is private and should stay that way. Tell them not to choose a screen name that gives away too much personal information.

Use privacy settings to restrict who can access and post on your child’s website.
Some social networking sites have strong privacy settings. Show your child how to use these settings to limit who can view their online profile. Explain to them why this is important.

Discuss why kids should post only information that you — and they — are comfortable with others seeing.
Even if privacy settings are turned on, some or even all, of your child’s profile may be seen by a broader audience than you’re comfortable with. Encourage your child to think about the language used in a blog, as well as any posted pictures and videos. Employers, college admissions officers, team coaches and teachers may view your child’s postings.

Talk to your kids about bullying.
Online bullying can take many forms: spreading rumours online; posting or forwarding private messages without the sender’s OK or sending threatening messages. Tell your kids that the words they type and the images they post can have real-world consequences. In fact, bullying can bring on punishment from the authorities. Encourage your kids to talk to you if they feel targeted by a bully.

Remind your kids that once they post information online, they can’t take it back.
Even if they delete the information from a site, older versions may exist on other people’s computers and be circulated online.

Know how your kids are getting online.
More and more, kids are accessing the Internet through their cell phones. Find out about what limits you can place on your child’s cell phone. Some cellular companies have plans that limit downloads, Internet access and texting; other plans allow kids to use those features only at certain times of day.

Make sure your kids avoid sex talk online.
Recent research shows that teens who don’t talk about sex with strangers online are less likely to come in contact with a predator.

Use the History function on your web browser to search sites your kids have visited.
Also, try Googling their name, nickname, school, hobbies, grade or area where you live.

Tell your kids to trust their gut if they have suspicions.
If they feel threatened by someone or uncomfortable because of something online, encourage them to tell you. You can then help them report concerns to the police and to the social networking site. Most sites have links where users can immediately report abusive, suspicious or inappropriate online behaviour.

Read privacy policies.
Spend some time with a site’s privacy policy, FAQs and parent sections to understand its features and privacy controls. The site should spell out your rights as a parent to review and delete your child’s profile if your child is younger than 13.

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