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A safe start to social networking

Published on: August 01, 2007

In every neighborhood, there are safe places and not-so-safe places for children to hang out. Places appropriate for older children but not younger ones. Places that make parents nervous and places that don’t.

Nervous or not, most parents find ways to expose their children, even young ones, to the world around them without exposing them to danger. Many, however, are unsure how to approach a whole new world — the Internet.

Thanks to the popularity of social networking and the cultural tsunami of MySpace, the Internet now rivals cruising Main Street, meeting at the mall and even talking on the phone as a way for young people — and adults — to connect.

“It’s just crazy popular,” says Dr. Megan Moreno, an adolescent medicine specialist at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle who studies the impacts of social networking.

Like dating, learning to drive or leaving for college, a child’s discovery of social networking is one of those bridges parents are quite happy to postpone crossing. Yet that’s easier said than done, even with pretweens.

“Young kids want to do what older kids are doing,” says Els Kushner, librarian at the Jewish Day School of Seattle. “They want to do what their parents are doing. Anything that is on a computer is really popular with kids.”

Exaggerated or not, concerns about MySpace — suggestive photos, revealing profiles, offensive banter and the specter of sexual predators — color parents’ perception of what their children will experience online. Against that backdrop, parents can’t help but think twice about allowing pretweens — children 6 to 10 years old — to take baby steps into the realm of social networking.

Karen Mason has no such doubts. “This is the world our children are growing up in,” says Mason. “It’s our responsibility to prepare them for the reality of the world.” Mason is the communications director for Club Penguin (, an interactive Web site aimed at children ages 8-14. Launched with no hype a little less than two years ago, Club Penguin quickly generated a buzz that has turned into a roar.

Founded by three cybersavvy young dads in Kelowna, B.C., the site’s monthly count of unique users has rocketed from 15,000 to more than 4 million, making it a leader among a growing number of Web sites targeting tweens and pretweens. “The biggest use is among 7- to 10-year-olds, but my 6-year-old loves Club Penguin,” says Mason.

Mason calls Club Penguin “the complete antithesis of MySpace.” At Club Penguin, users don’t post profiles or reveal their identities. They chat, play games and send greeting cards as penguin avatars, which they create to serve as their online aliases. A sophisticated filter screens out unacceptable words and messages. Parents can even choose an option that limits their children to a predefined menu of greetings, questions and statements. “I think it offers a really safe environment where children can begin to experiment with [social networking] — as long as they have parental approval,” says Mason.

Yet safety isn’t the only issue surrounding social networking at any age. “You have to think about what it is replacing,” said Moreno.

If a child gets in the habit of spending long hours online instead of playing in the park, how might that affect their physical fitness? And if they learn to depend on the Internet for their social life, how will they learn to make real friends? “Another criticism I’ve heard is that with increasing connectivity, kids have less down time,” says Moreno.
OK. Three thumbs down on giving pretweens a head start on social networking, right? Not necessarily. “Social networking is a tool. It can be used positively or negatively,” says Kushner. “As an adult, I spend a lot of time online socially and professionally, but I try to balance that with face time in the real world.”

One thing is certain: “If kids are going to be doing it, it’s important for their parents to know about it … and that rules be maintained,” says Kushner.

That may be the best argument of all for allowing children to dabble in social networking at a tender age: It gives parents a chance to instill a sense of cyber-responsibility at a stage when children are most likely to listen and to welcome parental involvement in their Internet adventures.

Along the way, parents may also pick up a little something-something in the way of Web smarts that could come in handy when the MySpace years roll around. “When I ask teens what their parents know [about social networking], they laugh and say, ‘They don’t even know how to use a computer,’” says Moreno.

Brad Broberg is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter/editor who lives in Federal Way with his 12-year-old daughter, Rachel.



Internet Safety Coalition



Source: King County Library System

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