Okay elementary school parents, let’s admit it. We’ve breathed a guilty sigh of relief that our children are still too young to have been bitten by the MySpace bug. We’ve relished our (temporary) reprieve from the mounting worries of on-line predators, cyber-bullying, inappropriate content, and addiction surrounding the social networking scene sweeping middle and high school kids.
But just because our little ones are still a few years short of acne and raging hormones doesn’t mean they aren’t involved with Internet socializing. In fact, tens of millions of all school-age kids have posted personal pages on Web sites that are, for all intents and purposes, mini-MySpaces.
“Not my child,” you say? Well, based on my own (albeit unscientific) survey of hundreds of kids nationwide, you would be hard pressed to find an Internet-active grade-schooler who hasn’t indulged.
On NeoPets.com (a site that Com Networks reports had 3.58 million visitors in September alone), kids create virtual pets and communicate with one another via their furry cyber-friends.
On the wildly popular ClubPenguin.com, for example, kids create on-line penguin personas (complete with screen names and igloos), then waddle around socializing with other cool penguin personas. On Millsberry.com (as in General Mills cereals), kids create cartoon-like “buddies” and custom-designed homes, then meander around town meeting Millsberry’s bottomless bowlful of citizens.
Inching closer to MySpace in terms of logistics and curb appeal, MyNick.com (as in Nickelodeon) has kids posting personal pages and profiles, sending Nick Mail to one another, and rocking out to Nickelodeon signature bands via exclusive podcasts.
In all fairness, the forces behind the majority of child-oriented social networking Web sites make a commendable effort to protect their young members. The sites require parental consent before activating an account; forbid the uploading of personal photos, and use content filters to guard against inappropriate material. Some employ real-time adult monitors to ensure the conversations on their site remain on the up and up; a select few go so far as to limit communication to drop-down menus of preapproved words and phrases.
Still, with the exception of the few Web sites with super-tight boundaries and security (most of which are considered too “babyish” by tweens and young teens), worry resounds throughout the kiddie cyber-social world.
While parental e-mail consent may be required before activating a child’s registration, there’s no way for a Web site to determine whether that permission indeed comes from a parent. While filters can be excellent deterrents to kids making rude or profane remarks, a more technologically savvy filter-dodger could circumvent them. Although monitors may ban members who engage in inappropriate conduct, there’s nothing to stop an offender from re-registering under a different identity. Finally, we shouldn’t assume cyber-monitors hold the same standards regarding message appropriateness as we do: Within seconds of submitting my registration on MyNick.com, I received a message from a fellow MyNick member stating: “R U a girl? If U R write me back!” Appropriate by Nick monitor standards? Perhaps. By “mom monitor” standards? Not on your life.
Like their grown-up counterparts, child-oriented social networking sites can be habit-forming. Many grade-schoolers spend hours every afternoon and weekend conversing with cyber-pals, who can also become addicted to the gaming element incorporated into many of these sites, which are made entertaining enough to tempt any kid to ditch healthy physical activity, family time, and, of course, homework.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this craze, however, is its unknown long-term impact: In-the-flesh playdates replaced by virtual playdates, human facial expression replaced by penguin facial expressions, chasing fireflies in the backyard replaced by chasing breakfast food…. Such a shift in the traditional childhood experience is bound to have social, emotional, and physical ramifications.
What do we do in the meantime? We take a deep breath, accept that cyber-socializing is part of being a millennial kid, impose and adhere to limitations on the amount of time our children can spend on these sites, and pledge to provide them with the same boundaries, supervision, and guidance in the virtual world as we would in the real one.
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