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Social Networking and Child Development - 1. Growing up with Social Networks and Online Communities

The purpose of this presentation is to examine child and adolescent social networking with an emphasis on how this unprecedented form of communication can be used as a resource that contributes to healthy growth and development. Most of the literature about child and adolescent relationships reflect yesterday's world, a time when face-to-face encounters were the only concern. Students saw each other in school, at the mall, movies or visiting someone's home. Changes in technology have brought about a significant shift in the way friendships are formed by reliance on cell phones, texting, instant messaging, iPads, email, pdas, and blogs.

In an effort to understand how these changes impact development, researchers have begun to explore some new issues in communication such as: How will the emerging online communication forums change the way students establish and preserve their friendships? What skills are necessary to build virtual friendships with people from other nations? What guidance should parents provide to help children nurture online friendships and participation with cyber dating? How can Internet friendships be linked with the goals that schools have for socialization, communication, and cultural diversity?

There is a corresponding need to become more informed about the dark side of Internet communication. Cyberbullying is the reliance on an electronic medium to frighten, threaten or harm others. Texting, instant messaging, chat rooms, blogs, online voting booths and e-mail are tools bullies apply to inflict humiliation, fear, and helplessness. Some questions on electronic bullying that should be answered include: What are the long-term effects on adolescents who cyberbully others? How are cyberbullies similar to and different from the face-to-face bullies? How successful are programs designed to rehabilitate cyberbullies? And, how do family relationships of cyberbullies compare with their classmates? No one can fully answer these questions yet but efforts are progressing to assess student experience with cyberbullies. Studies we have conducted in this context have been published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin (Strom, P., Strom, Walker, Sindel-Arrington, & Beckert, 2011; Strom, P. Strom, Wingate, Kraska, & Beckert, in press).

Participation of Underage Friends

Facebook has 800 million subscribers with half visiting the site every day. Most participants, 75%, live outside the United States. The average user has 130 friends with some having contact with several hundred friends. This experience provides many more personal contacts than were possible in the past. However, the time that is needed to keep a personal profile up-to-date and dialogue with Internet friends has to detract from face-to-face relationships and can weaken them. Someone with 200 friends has less time for building close and durable relationships. Certainly, conversations on Facebook and other social network sites are easier but also less personal than face-to-face contacts (Turkle, 2011).

Social networks have an enormous appeal. As a result, many children lie about their age in order to get on Facebook. Consumer Reports Magazine (2011) found that more than 7 million active users of Facebook were under the minimum required age of 13. Further, over 5 million users were 10 years old or younger. Not only are youth lying about their age but they do so with the support of their parents who appear unconcerned about involvement. Parents of the youngest age group may suppose these boys and girls are less likely to participate in risk taking. Only 18 percent of parents of preteen users made their child a Facebook friend. In comparison, two-thirds of parents of 13-14 year olds made their child a Facebook friend because they assume this is the age when risk taking begins.

Poor monitoring practices run counter to getting parents to become more constructively involved in online activities of children, a purpose of the Federal Online Privacy Protection Act (1998). This legislation led to the age restriction that currently prohibits social network sites from knowingly disclosing identifiable information about children that makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Finding out who is lying about being underage is complicated. Still, Facebook reports that it removes 20,000 people a day, albeit a tiny fraction of 800 million subscribers worldwide (Zuckerberg, 2011).

Surveys indicate that a growing number of parents believe their daughters and sons should be permitted to participate in social networking at early ages. In response, Mark Zuckerberg (2011), the founder of Facebook, has expressed a willingness to support changes in federal regulations that would permit children under age 13 to join. He recognizes that the Children's Online Policy Protection Act regulates what information web sites can gather about children under age 13 and states a determination to support sensible alteration of current policy. In his view, "My philosophy is for education you need to start at a really young age."

Blog and Network Benefits

A growing number of children document personal experiences by recording events capturing their attention and express feelings, ideas, and interpretations. However, unlike the guarded privacy that was cherished by diary writers in the past, most juvenile authors now prefer to post their journal content in the public domain. This recording of events usually appears on a blog, an online journal updated frequently that consists of news, opinions, pictures/ audio/ video files. The content is intended to produce responses from password-protected visitors or, on some sites, anyone in cyber space. Online communities share thoughts or collaborate on projects that depend on electronic communication only.

The online communities represent a wide range of interests that could be social, hobby-oriented, political, spiritual or professional. Most young people find Myspace, Facebook, YouTube, Hi5, Xanga, Live Journal, Bebo or Nexopia (Canadian equivalent of Myspace) appealing because they present opportunities to meet new friends, dialogue with others having similar interests, and encourage postings regarding mutual concerns (Richardson, 2010). Anyone using a blog can comment about matters that they feel are being ignored or distorted by the media and express rants unlikely to be published by public news outlets. Blogs have a natural appeal for children and adolescents because this forum permits them to control the way they present themselves online without interruption or correction by adults. In this way, blogs facilitate a measure of independence.

Looking from another vantage, social network blogs like Facebook serve other constructive functions that adults frequently fail to see. For example, having someone pay attention to your opinions and give honest feedback on behavior can support growth. Students can benefit from reciprocal sharing with bloggers from other ethnic groups or nations. This context permits them to practice their developing logic in debates that are seldom possible with the adults in their lives. By reading peer postings, children get confirmation that they are not alone in how they feel or interpret current situations and events. These benefits increase if teachers make assignments that can connect student motivation with existing resources.

The Web site for the Internet Public Library located at the University of Michigan provides links to a list of blogs for children and adolescents along with references about art and music, medicine, clubs and organizations, sports and world history. To illustrate, John is a sixth grader who has chosen Japan as the nation he wants to better understand. John is advised to go to http://www.ipl.org/ and then search these words -- here and there Japan. Some results that appear will concern life in Japan, especially for children, photographs of the Meiji period, Japan reference pages, travel and living guide for Japan, science, history and culture in Japan, and Edo, Japan, a virtual tour (Internet Public Library, 2012).

Most teenagers (75%) report using instant messaging, texting, and nearly half (48%) do so daily. The greatest leap in time devoted to this activity occurs between grade 6 and grade 7 when the proportion of users rises from 60% to over 80%. Girls are more likely than boys to text, rely on instant messaging, and they become involved at earlier ages. For example, 79% of sixth grade girls use the Internet as compared to 44% of boys (Rosen, 2010).

One example of a beneficial social network is The Millennials Report Blogs available at http://www.mobilize.org. At this site middle school and high school students are provided frequently changing topics for discussion. The users are expected to read a presentation that offers background information about the topic before expressing their views on the blog. These sources help individuals to debate more persuasively by accessing informed judgment as a basis for personal opinions. Some global topics include stories on current relief efforts where people are affected by natural disasters, exploitation of children at work throughout the world, and concerns on health and how youth can improve the environment and other conditions.

In conclusion, significant changes are transforming the socialization of children. There is increasing reliance on technology tools for communicating online with friends and strangers. Blogs facilitate these mostly out-of-school conversations that expose children to diverse opinions, allow them to express their views, report satisfactions and disappointments, and identify community needs.

References

Consumer Report Magazine (June, 2011). That Facebook friend might be 10 years old, and other troubling news. Retrieved February 3, 2012 from http://www.consumerreports.org
Internet Public Library (2012). Here and there Japan. Retrieved March 1, 2012, from The Library, available at http://www.ipl.org
Richardson, W. (2010). Blogs, wikis, podcasts and other web tools for classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Rosen, L. (2010). Rewired: Understanding the igeneration and the way they learn. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Strom, P., Strom, R., Walker, J., Sindel-Arrington, T., & Beckert, T. (2011). Adolescent bullies on cyber island. National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin, 95(3), 195-211.
Strom, P., Strom, R., Wingate, J., Kraska, M., & Beckert, T. (in press). Cyberbullying: Assessment of student experience for continuous improvement planning. National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin.
Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Zuckerberg, M. (2011, May 18). Innovation and entrepreneurship: What it takes. Presentation to NewSchools Summit in Burlingame, CA.

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