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.
How do social-networking sites work?
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.
The benefits of social networking
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:
- Practicing social skills. Kids get a chance to meet all kinds of people online. Because socializing via technology isn’t as immediate as face-to-face interactions or telephone conversations, kids have a little more time to think about a situation before they respond. This is an opportunity for them to experiment with greetings, responses, etc.
- Defined/guided social interaction. While online communication technologies increasingly allow for freeform interaction, social interaction can be narrowed (for purposes of scope and safety). Some examples of focused interaction online include buddy/friend lists, moderated themed chatrooms or message boards and, for younger children, the opportunity for parents to help a child by typing or reading along some of the time. This can help children build skills and confidence that will increase their independence as they mature.
- Creating private social spaces. More public places are watched so closely by adults that kids (especially teens) feel they can’t gather in groups without parents or other authority figures keeping track of them. Traditional hangouts like shopping malls are increasingly becoming off-limits to unsupervised teens. Similarly, the corner store, local pizza place and video arcade are becoming less inviting to kids who just want to hang out.
- Identity experimentation. A child can create an online identity that is different from what he normally presents. For example, a kid who really likes comics can be the “king of all superhero knowledge” online without being teased about it at school. Such a child can also find a peer group online that appreciates this aspect of him.
- Frequent use of existing and emerging/changing technologies. Technology is evolving faster than ever before. As children learn to adapt to new technologies (or new applications of existing technologies), they will be better equipped to adapt to future technology. This will help them quickly assess the risks of communicating through these new methods and adapt their behavior to maintain control over their own safety.
Additional benefits for kids with LD and AD/HD
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 social networking
The risks of networking online are becoming well-known, in part through media attention. Risks for children and teens include:
- Sharing one’s personal information with the wrong crowd. Unsupervised online contact with adults and older or manipulative kids can potentially lead to personal physical danger.
- Bullying. Harassment may occur online only (cyberbullying), or it may spill over to offline bullying committed by a schoolmate who has located his victim online.
- The permanency of online profiles. Once information has been shared on the Internet, it’s out there — forever! Retrieving information that others have read and captured is nearly impossible. Sharing one’s personal profile, words, pictures and videos can potentially lead to future embarrassment, harassment and even discrimination in employment and school admissions (although the latter concern is being addressed).
- Misinformation. Kids can find inaccurate and misleading information about safe sex, drug use and racism/hate online.
Additional risks for kids with LD and AD/HD
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:
- Impulsivity. A child who is impulsive may react or even hit the Ssend button before carefully reviewing his message and its meaning.
- Misreading or misunderstanding social messages. A child who misinterprets messages from other kids online may react internally or externally in a way that is inappropriate. The combination of being oversensitive and having trouble reading could cause such a reaction.
- Difficulty with written expression. He may also be at risk for expressing something in writing that doesn’t accurately convey what he intends.
- Loneliness. A child who craves social acceptance may be more easily lured into an unsafe online relationship. Online predators look for kids who express low self-esteem, which makes them more vulnerable.
Talking about safety
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:
- Learn about your child’s use of technology, at least to some degree. Don’t be afraid of it. You might even find your kids opening up to you if you adopt something such as instant messaging (IM).
- Do not diminish the importance of your child’s communication via technology. It’s a social lifeline. Sometimes it’s the only way kids communicate with their friends.
- Walk your talk. Take steps to protect your own online privacy and safety. Be aware of how you use the Internet. Remember: your kids can probably look at your Web-surfing history and cookies as easily as you can theirs!
Extra protection for kids with LD and AD/HD
Raskind offers the following advice to ensure greater online safety for kids with learning and attention problems:
- Kids with LD may need special guidance due to their particular characteristics and challenges. As a parent, you’ll want to tailor your conversation to your child’s unique social and emotional makeup, as well as his strengths, challenges and developmental stage – just as all parents do.
- Ideally, you will teach your kid about online safety and keep the conversation open and honest, yet allow him some freedom online. It’s a balancing act.
- If your child wants to meet an online friend in person, you should be part of that transition process.
Reaping the benefits, avoiding the risks
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.