Social Networking. What Age Is Right?
By Linda L. Esterson
Once her children reached middle school, Randi Zerwitz knew it was inevitable.
Both Sami, 11, and Luke, 12, wanted to embark into the world of social networking.
The Zerwitz children created Facebook accounts to communicate with their friends — classmates who live close by, but also camp friends and out-of-town relatives, most notably cousins in Canada whom they see once a year.
“It teaches about building and maintaining relationships with friends,” Zerwitz says.
The kids comment on postings, become fans of groups they like and post fun videos and pictures they make with friends.
It’s all basically innocent, but for parents like Zerwitz, it’s not without controls to keep unwanted individuals from contacting their children.
With Facebook in particular, people have to be accepted as “friends” to be able to post comments and communicate with specific people. Zerwitz reviews all of the people her children invite to be their “friends” and those who invite Luke and Sami to their friends’ list.
“They are not allowed to friend anybody we don’t know,” she says. “And we are friends with them on Facebook and with their friends.”
One of the problems that often comes up when younger children sign up for Facebook is that they may become exposured to older children, through their older siblings or activities outside of school. When the middle school student “friends” a high school student through an association, it can be grounds for additional scrutiny, says Bridget Sullivan, professor of interactive media design at Towson University.
“Things a high school student posts might not be appropriate,” says Sullivan. She adds, on the other hand, “If your child hangs out with high schoolers in the neighborhood, what difference does it make?”
Sullivan explains that monitoring all of the child’s Facebook “friends” includes those who are older. Depending on the parenting style, the parent may or may not allow the virtual relationship to exist.
Sullivan also believes that parents should research the privacy settings to ensure personal information is not provided on the site.
“Parents need to talk to their children about creating online identities,” she explains. “What do you want people to know about you forever? Online is not private. You can’t erase it. It maintains itself for a long time.”
Zerwitz and her husband Louis require that their children give them their passwords. They log in periodically to see what their children are posting and with whom they are conversing.
“If it’s someone I don’t know and am not friends with, I log in as one of them and look at the chat history and who that person is talking to,” says Zerwitz.
“If there’s bad language or they post videos I don’t like, I ‘un-friend’ them from their account.”
She also makes sure the children don’t post their phone numbers, addresses or e-mail addresses in their contact information. Musical preferences are acceptable, but personal information is not. She also allows Luke and Sami to “friend” their friends’ parents because “that’s extra help in monitoring them.”
Monitoring is critical because of the fear of Internet predators. In addition, children often use it as a forum for bullying, as has happened locally at public and private middle and high schools. In some instances, students have created fan pages in opposition to teachers or other students and they invite others to join in ridiculing or harassing these individuals; in other cases, they simply harass students. The ramifications for creating these negative pages and sites can include suspension from school for the creators and participants.
“Ultimately, the parents’ best defense is to be involved in what their kids are doing and educate them about the risks,” Sullivan says.
A good rule of thumb is to question what a teacher, their grandmother or even their rabbi would think after reading a comment, a post or a text that they typed.
“They should think about someone whose opinion they value,” Sullivan says. “Somebody they really look up to that they don’t want to have a poor opinion of them. It’s teaching them to build in a filter for their environment.”
Jason Taule has his own set of rules for Aliyah, 12, when it comes to using the Internet to communicate with friends. Their computer is located in the kitchen, where there is lots of traffic.
“It should be under parental supervision,” he says. “The Internet is not a babysitter.”
Jason Taule and wife Stacey require a password to be entered into the computer before Aliyah and Aaron, 10, may access the Internet. Specific Internet sites are blocked based on their category. They also have implemented a tool that prevents the release of sensitive information like their names, addresses, phone numbers and any information that could be used by a predator to find them.
“Anything that contains that data that’s not encrypted will not go out,” says Jason Taule, who is chief information security officer for a healthcare technology integrator. “Given what we know is out there and what the risks are, it’s not a risk we are willing to take.”
To date, Aliyah has not asked to have a Facebook account. Jason Taule insists she’ll wait until she’s 13 as required by the site. Then, she’ll be educated about the proper use and what is appropriate to post, without “scarring her childhood teaching about predators.”
“We’ve drilled into her head that whatever goes into the Internet is on there forever, and that what is posted on the computer or into a text could definitely come back to haunt her later,” says Stacey Taule. “It’s all about education.”
His occupation compels Jason Taule to take two more steps than most. When Aliyah sends her father an e-mail at work, there’s a “safe” word she uses so he knows it came from her.
Similarly, with her cell phone, Aliyah can call and text only certain people, receive texts only from approved people and use the phone only during certain hours.
“It doesn’t do good to constrain behavior in one regard,” Jason Taule explains. “Phone, iTouch, iPad… they’re all the same. You have to control it all.”
The Taule household rules require Aliyah to hand the phone to her parents at night, and she knows that at any time they can ask to see it to read messages. It’s also out of commission during meals, vacations and family gatherings.
“It’s for her safety,” says Stacey Taule.
Parents can help in keeping control of Internet use by following these simple rules:
• Keep the computer in a public area.
• Require children to provide all accounts and passwords.
• Help child set up accounts to prevent them from listing private information like name, address, phone number, e-mail address in registrations.
• Monitor child’s “friends” or “chat buddies.”
• Read the site’s terms of agreement and abide by rules including age for use.
• Set ground rules for use.