The Socially Networked Child

For many adults, their lives revolve around what they or their “friends” are doing on Facebook, Twitter, or a number of other social networking sites. In the last four years, a growing number of tweens have started developing a strong presence on social networking sites as well. Flocks of school aged children have taken to their favorite social networking sites looking for the same things that their parents and older friends are looking for.

So, given the diverse spread of activities children have been taking part in online, it is not easy to determine if being on these sites is detrimental for children – depriving them of real life face-to-face interactions, and all the tension and vigor that comes with real life socializing – or if it is healthy for a child to develop their own online presence – enhancing their ability to express themselves, strengthening their critical thinking skills, and enlivening their social skills.

There are studies out there that argue both sides of the social-networking-tween debate, and both camps pose valid arguments. In New Jersey, a middle school principal sent out an email to the parents of his students urging them to take down their children’s social networking sites, claiming that most young students use these sites to ridicule and bully other students. While some studies suggest that adolescents who are actively developing their online social presence are psychologically, the healthiest – claiming that children develop their own identities online along with creating emotional bonds with one another.

So, what is a parent to do when confronted with their young son or daughter gluing themselves to their online lives? Is it the healthiest thing for their development since the invention of the play date, or is it this generation’s form of the Jerry Springer show – entertainment that eats away at their intelligence minute by minute?

The truth is that social networking sites are like the Internet as a whole, when used correctly they can be a very valuable tool. However, this takes the active participation of a concerned parent, taking an interest in their child’s activities online. Parents need to educate themselves on how these tools work and how their children are using them. That way, parents know the social networking communities their children are active in just as well – if not better than – their children do.

This includes setting ground rules for their children when it comes to what they can and cannot do, and how much time they are allowed to spend on their Facebook or Twitter accounts. Also, making a rule that your child has to accept you as their “friend,” so that you can monitor their activities, is an important thought to entertain.

Parents should also be pushing their schools to adopt a curriculum that help students to make smart decisions when online. Social networking sites are a huge growing presence in our children’s lives, and they are not going anywhere anytime soon. Their school curriculum should acknowledge that a big part of students’ social lives are taking part online, and should strive to help them make good quality use of their online identities.

There are a good number of social networking sites that have sprouted up, which are aimed at starting kids off in a safe social networking community with the help of a parent. These sites can be a great way to teach children about the responsibility that comes with having an online presence, and using it in a productive and healthy way before moving on to a Facebook or a Twitter. This is definitely an option to consider in taking an early active role in how your child communicates online. My Brentwood School has adopted Schoology, a Facebook-esque tool that is used by faculty and students and is centered around their social and academic lives at school.

The bottom line is, parents need to communicate with their children and become part of their online lives. If you get involved, ask questions, educate yourself, and take a genuine interest in your child’s online life, social networking can be a valuable and enriching part of their emotional and social development, and you can take peace in knowing that your child is using their online presence for good instead of taking part in the negative activities floating around online.

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