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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Social Networking -- WSJ's Julia Anguin reports...

From the conclusion of Ms. Anguin's July 26, 2006 rather thorough article on social networking sites:

After a week in the world of social networking, I came to some conclusions. Really young kids (say, under 13) probably shouldn't be on any of these sites except possibly Imbee. Slightly older kids might do best on Xanga, where opportunities for strangers to connect are limited but the site doesn't have the strict feeling of Imbee. And Facebook is the best option for high-school and college students -- because ultimately the Internet is safest when used for networking with people you already know, or might know, in real life.

Read the full article if you have time. I'd like to draw your attention to three points:
  1. MySpace is not listed as appropriate by Anguin
  2. Kids under 13 shouldn't be on any of these sites
  3. There's an important difference between Facebook, which is about "real world people", and the anonymous or fantasy-world environment of so many of the other sites.
1) MySpace is the most popular social networking site, and popular sites have gravity - they attract more and more participants. At this time, MySpace can't/doesn't do anything substantial to separate young people from adults. Everything is "the honor system". Other sites make varying efforts. Ms. Anguin notes that representatives from the various providers were unfazed when she admitted faking her identity/age/etc. to get on these sites. MySpace is the ultimate hunting ground for Internet predators. I feel bad for these guys in a way, because they are a victim of their own success. But MySpace, as the leader in the social networking milieu, has an obligation to address the hard problems aggressively. I'm hopeful that they will do so, but not optimistic that they will do so soon. I continue to recommend that MySpace be blocked on home and community computers. Keep your kids AWAY from MySpace.

2) In fact, if your kids are under 18, I'd suggest they not participate in social networking sites, and certainly not those that include adults. The temptations are great, the controls are weak, and the dangers are real. Is it worth it? Having a conversation about social networking sites with your kids is absolutely needed. What are they getting out of these interactions? Is there another way for that need to be satisified? How much is enough? Remember, you're the parent, so you have the privilege of (and the obligation to) set rules and limits.

3) Facebook is "real". MySpace and others blur the line between real and "fantasy". One of the classic aspects of being a teenager is experimenting with identity. That's what makes the mingling of adults and youth together so dangerous. Kids are experimenting with various personas, and adults reinforce the personas that excite and please. It's not hard to imagine what kind of personas are going to get the positive reinforcement in a place like MySpace. If you're not participating, and your kids are, you're letting them fall prey to powerful influences you know nothing about.

Social networking isn't going to go away. It's yet another new invention and use model of the fantastically flexible thing that is the Internet. We have to look closely at the ways social networking is delivered, and choose wisely for ourselves, our communities, and our children.

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