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Kids Online: How Old? How Much? How Soon?

About a year or two ago, a father came up to me during traffic duty in the school parking lot after school.  He wanted to know my opinion about allowing his daughter, whom I had taught since fourth grade, to have a Facebook account.  It’s a common question, and it’s one I think more parents should perhaps be asking me.  I know that a lot of my students use Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and a few other online sites.  I also know that they frequently tell me about things they have watched, listened to, or learned online.  As their technology teacher, I’m not going to tell them they shouldn’t be making use of the tools available to them on the Internet.  But I am also a parent and an aunt.  And I often ask myself three questions: How old? How much? How soon?


Boys Behaving BadlyI’ve been spending the holidays with family back East.  I live in northern California, but I grew up in northern New Jersey.  I’ve been staying with my sister who has three girls, ages 19, 16, and 10.  My son is about to turn six.  First off, I have to say that being in a place where I lived before most online ANYTHING existed has me thinking in one mindset: the one from thirteen-plus years ago before I moved to California.  I still think of New Jersey as being pre-Internet.  But it would be ridiculous for me to apply what was true for me to my nieces and my own child.  Times have changed.  Add to this the ubiquity of technology in my own life: two iPhones, two MacBooks, and a desktop PC in our home.  We have more processors than humans at my place.  My nieces are growing up with all kinds of computing power in the palm of their hands with cell phones – another piece of technology I never had growing up.  They have come to expect instant information, instant access, and instant gratification of all their electronic-based needs.  And, sadly, they also have a sense of entitlement I never had growing up.  It’s not just my family: all the kids and young adults I know just think information and services are a mere click or beep away.

But I have also noticed how this constant plugged-in state seems to whittle away the healthy inhibitions and caution kids need – especially kids today.  When I was growing up, we played outside and more or less ran the streets and open spaces with reckless abandon.  Everyone knows how that has dramatically changed.  We simply cannot let our kids and teens just roam aimlessly in today’s world.  However, they’re doing the equivalent in the online world, mostly designed by and for the college-age set and older, yet heavily populated by teens and even tweens who have no one watching them, as far as I can tell.  My sister just had to pull the plug on my youngest niece’s online usage due to some poor choices.  My son is only five-going-on-six, but I know I need to be ready to face these issues as he gets older.  Plus, he already has developed quite a Google Earth habit and likes to play a bit of Starfall now and again.  He probably won’t want his own YouTube account any time soon, since he stars in more than half the videos on MY YouTube.  And he is already the subject of a fan page on Facebook, the members of which I carefully limit to people we actually know personally.  So I am actually setting up an online presence for him, which I can oversee, before he’s even old enough to do it for himself.  But I’m a geek.  What about normal people?

If people were to ask MY advice (read: if you don’t want to know what I think, how did you get this far?), I would give them the following guidelines:

  1. Know your kid.  I spent the day recently with my BFF from college.  Her son is the same age and personality as my son.  Her daughter is not quite four, yet she’s streets ahead of our boys in worldy ways and general savvy.  She’s a smooth one, and my friend and her husband already know they’ve got their work cut out for them.  She’s an adorable, sweet, really good kid.  But she’s already a mover and a shaker, and she’s not out of preschool yet.  The day we were there, she spent most of the time leading my son around by the hand, having him do her bidding.  In a few years, if my friend asks my advice about letting the kids online, I would say, handle it like you do other activities with these two children.  You know which one you have to keep a closer eye on.  You know which one you can trust to make better choices.  The rules should be the same, but the enforcement will have to vary from child to child.  If your child tends to hide things from you or push the limits, look into parental controls and require that he or she give you all account names and passwords to anything online.
  1. Don’t be afraid to be the parent.  You’re the adult. He or she is the child.  You pay the bills.  You bought the computer.  Even if your child purchases a computer, you are providing shelter, electricity, and the online access, I bet.  So you call the shots.  If “real life” requirements are not being met, online privileges should be among the first to be revoked, especially if that is a huge motivator for your child.  When my son is being difficult or causing us to spend too much time waiting for him to do what he’s told, we remind him that a natural consequence of his choices could be that he won’t have any time for Google Earth before settling down for the night.  Be sure to state up front your expectations and then – most importantly – follow through and do what you said you would when it comes to consequences.  If nobody ever got a speeding ticket, would anyone heed the posted speed limits?
  1. Equate online behavior with the real world.  Too often, kids – despite seeming to LIVE online – don’t really understand that the online world really DOES connect to reality.  What they choose to do online impacts real people and has real consequences.  My generation came of age with the beginning of the Internet.  We got to experience all the poor judgment that is now outlined as what NOT to do when discussing Netiquette.  Today’s “Facebook is going to start charging you to keep your own information private” status update is yesterday’s “virus that will wipe out your entire hard drive” forwarded spam e-mail.  Young people need to understand that what they do online can be tracked, and if criminal acts occur, the consequences will come down on the heads of the adults in their lives.  That’s you. (Smile for your mug shot, now.)  So when they use foul language online and type words they may never say out loud in front of adults, explain to them what that means.  Adults can and do see their words eventually, and that could have been their potential future employer or college admissions officer that just read that potty-mouth junk.  Pictures of those underage parties with alcohol won’t impress anyone they might need to make a good first impression on later.  In fact, they are already making their first impressions without even knowing the full extent of their audience.  So monitor what they’re doing and talk with them frequently about the online persona they are building.

What it really comes down to is good parenting and follow-through.  If you’re already the kind of parent who always knows where your kids are, can discuss most things with your kids, and follows through on your promises and threats, the online thing is probably going to be fairly easy to navigate.  But if you find yourself increasingly in the dark about your kids’ activities, friends, or whereabouts, you may want to step up the vigilance in real life and start doing a bit of snooping online as well.  Google your kids’ names.  Require they have you as a friend on their social networks (and check on their sites/profiles regularly).  Invite them and their friends to spend time at your home so you have a better idea of where they are and how they’re spending their time. 

You can also cultivate relationships with other adults your child(ren) may be more open with – a cool aunt (like me!) or uncle, a neighbor, a friend’s parent, or even a teacher your child admires and trusts.  You’d cry if you knew how many kids have told me, over the years, “my parents don’t care about me or what I do.”  I know it’s usually not true, but that’s what many kids perceive based on the lack of awareness and/or involvement they know their parents have in the kids’ lives.

So to answer my questions:  How old? Please read the terms of service and do your best not to violate them.  How much? As much as your child can handle and be responsible about, and not a jot more.  How soon? As soon as you are prepared to do your job as the parent to monitor what they’re doing and enforce the consequences when they cross the line.

Image “Boys Behaving Badly” from Flickr user Orin Zebest, some rights reserved, Creative Commons.  

Diane Main is a Google Certified teacher who teaches technology integration in San Jose, California. Visit her blog at FreeTeacherTools.com

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