By GreatSchools Staff
Social networking has become increasingly popular, especially among children and teenagers. Ninety-three percent of 12- to 17-year-olds are online, and more than half of them use social-networking sites, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Networking online offers kids many benefits but also carries a degree of risk. Reports of those dangers — and incidents that illustrate them — have been a hot topic in the media.
Parents are understandably concerned. Scott Moore, an online community manager, says, "Based on discussions on message boards, it's clear that parents are surprised and worried about the communication on MySpace and other social-networking services. They are worried about their kids' safety and how this medium can affect their social development, especially if their kids have learning and/or attention problems."
In this article, we will address the risks and benefits of social networking online for kids in general and, more specifically, for kids with learning disabilities (LD) and/or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD). We will also explain how you can enhance your child's online interactions.
Websites like MySpace and Facebook encourage people to create and share their own online identities and profiles, which can include personal information, photographs, blog entries, video, podcasts and music clips. Users can then share their information with other people directly and also by accessing even more people via the online networks of those individuals. From a technical standpoint, a social-networking site creates a virtual meeting place for people to connect and make friends.
New websites pop up every day. At this time, there are hundreds of sites that claim to offer some form of social networking. And, given the ever-evolving nature of the Web, even well-established sites frequently add, remove or change their features — sometimes making the sites safer, sometimes making them less so. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for operating a social-networking site, so parents need to check the sites their kids visit on a regular basis.
With all the frightening stories about kids at risk online, is there any good news? Yes. In fact, there are many benefits for kids networking socially online. They include:
Marshall H. Raskind, PhD, explains that online social networking can be a normalizing experience for kids with LD or AD/HD. Some research suggests that people are more willing to disclose personal information online because of the anonymity. This means kids with special needs can express themselves, including their thoughts and feelings, more easily and without fear of the rejection they may experience in real life. (Visit SparkTop.org,for examples of such creative expression.) Research also suggests that kids with learning problems may be more willing to ask for help online than in face-to-face situations.
Furthermore, Raskind explains, many kids with LD have trouble with social skills, and online social networking allows them to socialize anonymously. In fact, those they network with don't even need to know about their LD. They can assume and experiment with different personas than what other kids see at school. Kids with LD can also practice initiating and maintaining online friendships. They can respond to others, with the advantage of having time to review and edit their communication before sending it to others. This experience may carry over into real life and give them the courage and skills to make and maintain friendships in daily life.
The risks of networking online are becoming well-known, in part through media attention. Risks for children and teens include:
Raskind notes that kids who have learning and attention problems may be especially vulnerable to online risks if they have traits and tendencies such as:
There is one thing most experts agree on: When it comes to teaching kids to use the Internet safely, nothing can take the place of good parent-child communication. It's important for parents to explain to their kids how certain behaviors can lead to problems (such as giving out personal information, meeting people offline or not critically analyzing the validity of a person's identity or information presented on a website). In our next article, we will describe in greater detail the techniques you can use to protect your child online. In addition to talking about safe online communication with your child, you can extend your understanding and awareness of your child's online activity if you:
Raskind offers the following advice to ensure greater online safety for kids with learning and attention problems:
For many of today's children and teens, using the Internet — and networking online — is an important daily activity. While you as a parent may not have had the same experience as a child, you can play a critical role in teaching your child how to take advantage of the benefits and steer clear of the risks of social networking. In the next article, we will describe in detail various techniques you can use to protect your child online, as well as legislation that is designed to safeguard kids' privacy on the Internet.
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