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Safety for Adolescents' Online Social Networking

By Charlene C. Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese

Remember your first teenage crush? That special person captured your attention somewhere in school—in the hallway, science lab, or cafeteria or at a basketball game. Soon you could think of nothing else but getting to know this person, going on a date, and maybe even "going steady."

You used all the tools in your arsenal: dropping a book at his feet, hoping he would pick it up; accidentally bumping into her in the hallway after carefully planning how you would apologize. Or maybe you actually built up enough courage to sit at her table during lunch, or to talk to him after a basketball game.

Some things have not changed for our children. Young adolescents in middle school and teens in high school still have romantic daydreams focused on someone who remains agonizingly out of reach. These days, however, our sons and daughters have at their disposal a powerful new tool that can help them turn their dreams into reality—the Internet.

 

A Typical Example

Consider the case of Jessica, a painfully shy 8th-grader. The object of her affection? Todd, one of the "hottest" boys in the class, who doesn't seem to know she's alive. Jessica's best friend, Kristen, urges her to talk to him.

"You two are so alike!" Kristen tells Jessica. "If he gets to know you, he'll like you."

Still, even the thought of saying one word to Todd paralyzes Jessica with fear. What if he blows her off? Worse yet, what if one of the "cool" girls sees her making overtures to Todd and makes fun of her? No, Jessica decides. She can't take the risk of being embarrassed or humiliated. Instead, she will suffer the grief of unrequited love.

One evening, however, a miracle occurs. While online, Jessica receives an instant message (IM) from Kristen.

"T's scrn nm is FunDwnUndr. IM him now!"

Not having to see him in person, Jessica finds it easier to talk with him.

"lik yr scrn nm—r u aussie?" she asks him.

"no, but want 2 go," he answers.

"want 2 go 2," she responds.

Soon, IMs are flying back and forth and Kristen's observation that Jessica and Todd have a lot in common holds true. The next day at school, Jessica doesn't have to devise tricks to bump into Todd. He eagerly seeks her out to continue the conversation they began online.

Cyberspace adds a new dimension to youthful romance. Young adolescents and teens embrace all types of new technology with enthusiasm, so it's not surprising that they would find ways to use the Internet, as well as cell phones, digital cameras, and video cameras, to hasten the dating game.

The cyber approach to relationships has advantages. In a 2003 Parade magazine survey, 56 percent of boys and 79 percent of girls said that the first thing that catches the attention of the opposite sex is looks. Online, looks become secondary. Like Jessica and Todd, young people have the opportunity to judge another person by what the person says, rather than by how he or she looks.

Yet parents are wary of their children's looking for love on the Web. "Who is my daughter or son talking to online? Is it really someone from class, or a pedophile?"

Even if parents know whom their children are talking to in cyberspace, they may still wonder whether courting online is positive. Many a romance blossoms in the electronic garden, but problems also spring up like unwanted weeds.

Any new invention is bound to meet with resistance, and the Internet is no exception. While youngsters have never known a world without the Internet, adults take a longer time to adjust. The wise parent, however, will put doubts on hold and instead become cyber-savvy.

 

Love, electronic style

How do adolescents connect using technology? Let us count the ways:

  • E-mails. That mechanical voice announcing "You've got mail!" is music to an adolescent's ears. These missives keep the social network buzzing with news of budding romances and wilting relationships.
  • Instant messages (IMs). These online communications allow kids to carry on conversations in real time. IMing is now more popular than the home phone as a way for teens to talk.
  • Web logs (blogs). As a teenager, you probably filled pages in your diary mooning over someone in your class. Adolescents still pour out their thoughts, but on a Web page rather than a paper page.
  • Websites. Online gathering sites like myspace.com and xanga.com attract young people who come to vent and meet others. While myspace.com specifies that users must be at least 14 years old and xanga.com sets that age at 13, there is no system set up to prevent younger children from posting.
  • Chat rooms. Chat rooms are electronic conference calls with many people talking at once. Adolescents often set up their own private chats, but some bolder souls enter chat rooms where dangerous strangers may lurk.
  • Cell phones. Whereas most parents buy their kids cell phones for safety reasons, adolescents see this device as a lifeline to their social lives. Young people can call, text, or send photos to friends, thus reaching out to even more people.
  • Camcorders. No longer reserved for recording a baby's first steps or a special birthday, camcorders are used by adolescents to capture images of their friends, often in embarrassing situations.

 

Electronic networking

Because adolescents are so comfortable with new technology, they find creative ways to use the many devices that are at their disposal. For example, a teen having trouble finding the right words to

e-mail or IM to impress that certain someone may enlist a loquacious friend to help out. One girl says, "With the Internet, you can have a friend on the phone and say, 'Here's what I want to say. How do I say it?' And she can help."

With the Internet and cell phones, young people who meet at camp or through mutual friends are able to keep the relationship going, even if mountains or oceans separate them. These two methods of communication have another advantage for privacy-hungry teens: no little brother or sister can listen in.

Despite all these positive aspects of meeting and greeting online, parents need to be aware that misuse can lead to broken hearts and bashed reputations. Consider these situations:

  • E-mails and IMs. Rumors can spread like wildfire on the Internet. Someone intent on damaging another student's reputation can easily send a message to hundreds of classmates by pushing one button. In a 2005 survey conducted by MindOH!, an education company that focuses on character education, nearly 80 percent of the 5,500 teens surveyed said that they had read or spread gossip online. When that gossip has to do with a young girl's sexual reputation, the damage may be great indeed.
  • Websites. That same survey found that half of the teens surveyed had seen a website that made fun of their peers. In one situation, a boy dumped by his girlfriend went to her website and "morphed" her face into something ugly.
  • Camera phones. A picture taken at an improper time, showing the subject in a compromising position, can doom a reputation and hold a vulnerable teen up for ridicule. A child caught in a public display of affection (PDA) may find that photo uploaded to the Internet and posted on websites where millions may view it.
  • Camcorders. Paris Hilton's X-rated video went around the world, but there have been similar occurrences starring far less famous girls. While Paris' reputation suffered only a minor (and brief) blow, other girls may not be as fortunate.

 

The Parent Factor

Parents who are technophobic may blame the Internet when something bad happens, but this may backfire. Many adolescents who are teased or tormented in cyberspace withhold that information from their parents, fearing that they will be forbidden to go online. They reason that it's better to tolerate the teasing than to be cut off from their social world.

Here are some things to consider doing to encourage openness and proper use of technology:

  • Learn how your child is furthering romance on the Internet. Mention this article; then ask, "How are kids in your school using the Internet?"
  • Focus on the behavior, not the technology. The technology may have changed, but kindness and decency should still be at the top of everyone's list. If your son is going to break up with a girl, he shouldn't send her an e-mail to do so.
  • Talk about public versus private. A young girl may think it's okay to pour out her innermost thoughts on a public website. Point out how that information may be used against her to fuel rumors.
  • Consider your child's age when buying a device. Does a 10-year-old really need a camera phone? Can you be sure your 11-year-old won't misuse that camcorder? If you decide to go ahead and buy, remember that these devices don't come with proper-use manuals. That message must come from you.
  • Talk about romance and relationships. Kids may have a lot to teach parents about new technology, but parents have more to teach their children about relationships and romance—on and off the electronic highway. If parents neglect to talk about the excitement and beauty of love, adolescents will get that information from peers, the media, and, yes, the Internet.

 

Charlene C. Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese are authors of Boy Crazy! Keeping Your Daughter's Feet on the Ground When Her Head Is in the Clouds (Broadway Books, 2006).