The Pitfalls and Promises of Facebook, Social Media, and Kids

| March 25, 2011 | 9 Comments
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Flickr:HoyasMeg

With more than 500 million Facebook users across the world, it’s hard to refute that the social networking site has profoundly changed the way we communicate and share information. But what’s the Facebook effect on kids? When it comes to navigating the social networking world – whether it’s Facebook or Fan Fiction sites – the terrain becomes even murkier.

“Parents have to give kids the opportunities to figure out what it means to be digital citizens.”

Parents worry about what’s age-appropriate, what should be kept private, and exposure to cyberbullying, among many other issues. And it’s true — there’s a lot to navigate, even for adults. But Facebook and social networks aren’t going away anytime soon, and the better parents understand this, the better they’ll be able to help their kids understand it too. Rather than block all access to the Internet, they can see that for every pitfall, there’s a potential promise, too.

“Parents can and should moderate sites, but they have to give kids the opportunities to figure out what it means to be digital citizens, and allow kids to be empowered,” said Carrie James, who’s conducting a qualitative survey of kids and social networks at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “They need prompts and supports to develop guidelines together.”

CONNECTION AND SELF-EXPRESSION

For better or for worse, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk provide ways for kids to connect with each other and to express themselves.

This level of unchecked expression, some argue, is too much for young children who can’t handle the complexities of social networking sites. “The amount of angst has increased in my school in the past few years,” said Anthony Orsini, principal of Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, New Jersery. With three suicides (including Tyler Clementi) in the past year, he says “it’s been a fearful time in our town for our parents.”

“We can’t fault kids for doing something wrong on Facebook or Twitter because we’re not teaching them.”

The irony here is that the fear doesn’t come from the traditional “stranger danger” but from how kids behave towards each other online. “Stranger danger is unbelievably minute compared to the social and emotional damage they receive from each other everyday,” he said. Add to that the strict anti-bullying laws that Orsini says renders schools responsible for kids’ online behavior, the matter becomes that much more complicated.

But for administrators like Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in Bergen County, New Jersey, privacy and cyberbullying issues are a red herring. “What if a kid swears in the hallway? It’s the same thing. People want to hide behind the legal issues, but it’s the same as swearing on Facebook,” he says.

Either way, kids will have to learn that their digital footprint is born from the moment they start posting on each other’s walls and create their first online avatar. They’ll have to figure out that every YouTube video they upload will be a reflection of themselves as the public sees them. With guidance from parents and educators, they can figure out what the world knows about them.

But at the moment, it’s not a high priority at most schools, Sheninger says. “Schools aren’t teaching kids to be digitally responsible,” he said. “We can’t fault kids for doing something wrong on Facebook or Twitter because we’re not teaching them. We need to have digital citizenship curriculum in schools.”

It’s important to note here that Orisini is the principal of a middle school, while Sheninger is the principal of a high school, and the age difference can be a factor in how kids behave online.

LEARNING

Chances are, anytime the computer is on near a kid (and let’s face it, even adults), some kind of social networking is happening. Whether it’s Facebook or instant-messaging, or watching or uploading videos to share, the distractions are endless. As we all know, one link can easily lead to another until suddenly an hour and half has passed and we’ve lost track of the task at hand.

Last year’s comprehensive study by Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids age 8 – 18 actually manage to pack in almost 11 hours worth of media content into 7½ hours of using media.

So is there any time left for learning? Researchers like Henry Jenkins would argue that the best kind of learning – engaged and collaborative – is happening on social network sites.

Jenkins talks about “deeply meaningful forms of learning … taking place through engagement with affinity groups and social networks online” such as Harry Pottery Alliance, which has mobilized more than 100,000 people against the Darfur genocide and labor rights at Wal-Mart.

But because of privacy laws like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, most schools shut off access to social networking sites — with a few exceptions. To principal Sheninger, “if you’re not on Facebook, you can’t really communicate with us. Our new hub of real-time information is Facebook. I post things about what the kids are doing, and when they comment or parents comment, as a principal, I’m proud,” he said.

PRIVACY

Facebook’s changing privacy settings and its tendency to default to more open information is a source of constant annoyance for its users. We have to keep close tabs on those changes, especially when it comes to kids.

But young children are not the primary target user for Facebook, which does not allow kids under 13 to sign up for an account. Parents must decide whether they’ll allow their children to become a part of the vast Facebook network, or to harness the social networking world into smaller, more contained sites like Togetherville or Club Penguin.

Parents can use the subject of privacy settings as an opportunity to teach kids about navigating the online world. They can talk about what information they agree is acceptable to be shared with friends and with the public at large and about social media etiquette. With guidance and support, and with parents to set examples of what they think is appropriate, kids can learn their place and their responsibility as part of a worldwide community.

Read more in the MindShift series about Children and Social Media.

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  • Anonymous

    This is one of the BEST articles I’ve ever read about this topic! It puts (more eloquently) what I’ve been preaching for years! From 1999-2005 I preached privacy, safety, net nanny & stranger danger – now I realize it’s their peers that are most likely to harass & bully. It’s now more about awareness than safety because I truly believe that it is the kids who are already “at risk” in real life who are most at risk in their online life. I also strongly believe that Digital Ed for teens is as crucial as Sex Ed for teens – we know they’re gonna do it anyway – better with knowledge, discernment, & ethics. Like you said in the article, we must let kids make mistakes & discover for themselves what it means to be a digital citizen. Thank you for this!!!
    Cheers!
    Gwyneth Jones
    The Daring Librarian

  • Ariel Daisy

    Imbee is a great, safe site that I let both my son and daughter use, it is required to have a parent account in order to monitar your children. A wonderful website!!!

    imbee.com

  • Suzie Rush

    Just needed to stop and say how pleased I was to find this article in amongst the tabloid fear-mongering. I’m currently researching a college project on the effects of social networking on children, and was appauled at just how many ‘journalists’ were happy to place the blame on the sites themselves when the issue was clearly a lack of education and/or adequate parenting.

    I’m a parent myself, and am under no illusions that my child will be using the internet, an social networking sites, with or without my permission. The only choice I have is how I teach her to handle herself on the internet, and how I monitor her activity when she’s too young or uninformed to be responsable for herself, much as I would be expected to in any social situation.

    Thank you for acknowledging where the danger truely lies, and providing the first sane article I’ve come across during this morning’s research (depressing fact).

  • http://profiles.google.com/znelson Zach Nelson

    It’s time for social media to evolve beyond shadowy corporations that store and use your private information to drive advertisements and spam. Check out INCLIQ.com for a better, safer alternative.

  • Anonymous

    Nicely done, Tina, nicely done…

    Now, how do we get school administrators, teachers, and parents to own more of this? That’s the challenge!

    • Anonymous

      Agreed, Scott! I think part of the problem is the mainstream media’s fear-mongering tactics that fuel the fire and paint these issues as black and white. The headlines basically demand that, in order to be mindful, smart parents and teachers, we must shun social media completely. If those who hold the bullhorn are better able to delineate the subtleties, the message will eventually be heard by parents, who in turn will influence teachers and school administrators. Here’s hoping…

  • Liz Casso

    I think that parents and teachers have the opportunity to teach childreen, manage information and be prudent with the things that they share with others, not only in social networks even at school. Sometimes we think that we most give explanations about why we have done something, or why we are in a certain way, but the true is that we are free of being in the way that we think its the better and also we are free of giving or not giving information about us.

  • Kchristieh

    The reason that Facebook and other social networking sites are so popular is that they’re powerful tools for sharing information and maintaining relationships. We’d be crazy not to harness this technology for teaching the next generation. Jenkins is right: if the Harry Potter Alliance can do it, why can’t schools?

  • Ktspence

    This is a very nice article. I agree with what you said that we need to teach kids how to be a responsible online citizen by navigating the Internet with them. Whenever my daughter plays on her favourite virtual worlds like ekidnaworld.com, I make sure I am there beside her to guide her how to conduct herself on these online worlds.