Understanding Your Child's Interaction with the Internet
Social Networks and Cyberbullying
Of course, technology is now mediating those social interactions we want kids to become proficient at. It's estimated that there are 7.5 million kids under 13 on Facebook (despite the site's age policy), and as many as 5 million of them are 10 or younger. This means it's really never too early to start talking to your children about how they interact in virtual communities.
Separated from face-to-face interaction, kids can become impulsive, insensitive, and say things online they wouldn't otherwise say. Conversely, things said online can have an outsize effect on kids because they cannot as easily put jabs in context. Cyberbullying doesn't appear to be any more prevalent than "traditional" bullying, but you can see how these factors can combine to wreak havoc.
Don't wait until your child is online before discussing:
- That a stranger is a stranger anywhere
- To think before you share
- Anonymity isn't an excuse for meanness.
- If you see something, say something.
Finally, we should note that as young people increasingly lead their lives online to some degree, the signs of psychiatric distress are moving to the Web. Monitoring your child -- by friending her on Facebook, sharing passwords, setting up Google alerts -- is not just about policing malicious or inappropriate behavior, but also about looking out for signs of hopelessness, an obsession with how she looks, or bizarre thoughts and statements, among other things.
Sex and the Internet
Parents are giving younger and younger kids mobile phones, and there are many benefits to this practice, including laying the groundwork for a trusting connection. (Teaching kids to keep in touch early pays dividends later on, when teens stay out of trouble because they know they need to contact their parents.) But sexual content has a habit of finding its way onto the mobile phones of young and old alike, and it runs rampant on the Internet. The truth is you probably cannot prevent your child from seeing sexual images at some point. So what can you do about it? The simple answer is to communicate early and often.
In addition to talking about sex in general with your kids from a young age and in a developmentally and ag-appropriate way, you should discuss the sorts of sexual imagery they are likely to see on the Internet -- pornography, that is. Some points to make:
- Porn stars aren't meant to look real. No one should expect to look that way.
- Porn sex isn't real either -- it's fantasy. It's the "fast food" version of sexuality. In the real world, people don't relate to each other this way.
- The unrealistic expectations and simplified sex in porn can be damaging to real relationships. Real sex usually comes with real emotions.
A Brave New World
Fortunately, the digital age has many advantages for children. Far-flung families -- in the military, for instance, or even moms and dads who work late -- can stay in touch as never before with new technologies. The Internet is teeming with information for inquisitive young minds. Kids who have a hard time "fitting in" with others in their community have access to new peers and new communities online.
We won't know what the real effects of the present communication revolution are until time has passed. But beyond visions of "how it used to be," history shows us that people adapt, and children are resilient. The present media environment is the only one your children have known. Your job as a parent is to know what's going on, give good advice, and model common sense -- just as good parents always have.
Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.