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with Steven Parker, MD

This blog is now retired. Dr. P passed away on Monday, April 13, 2009. The WebMD Community will dearly miss his kind, caring, and often humorous manner.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Internet Safety: Growing Up Online

Photo by Tanya Ryno

OK all you parents out there in cyberspace: HEADS-UP!

Recently I watched a Frontline show on Public Broadcasting called “Growing Up Online.” I think every parent should see it. That means you, even if your kids are still too young to venture into the internet.

The focus of this program was not the well-publicized dangers to kids on the internet (like sexual predators). Instead, it delved into online social networking sites, such as MySpace and FaceBook. As I watched it, I realized that when it comes to this important generational cultural phenomenon, I’ve been totally out of it (not, alas, a first) and, unless you’re pretty young, I’m betting you have been too.

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I did not grow up with the internet and I’ve come to realize that the online environment – mothers’ milk for our kids – is, in many ways, an alien zone to me. It’s kind of like the differences in your fluency when you’ve learned a foreign language as an adult versus as a child.

Additionally, as a shy and private geezer myself, I am baffled. Why would anyone expose so much of themselves online for the world to see? Why would anyone want to have a few thousand anonymous friends with whom to communicate? What exactly is the nature of a relationship that is purely online, where you never have met the person, where you never really know their name, where you don’t even know if their description of themselves is fact or fantasy?

And, most baffling of all, why is all disembodied cyberspaced communication so earthshakingly important to many young teens in establishing their own identities and in connecting with others?

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Let me be clear: even though I don’t get their appeal, I’m not railing against these sites. Nor am I claiming they will be the root of all evil in 21st century relationships. What I am saying is that, as parents and adults, we need to familiarize ourselves with online social networking sites and seek to understand what is going on and how they might affect the development of 21st century kids’ social and intimate relationships.

Who knows, maybe it will prove to be a blessing. Then again, maybe not. Or maybe, in the end, it will prove to be just another passing adolescent phase of no real consequence. Still, I do worry that some aspects of growing up online could potentially affect our kids in ways that may not be so wonderful. Could that include social networking sites?

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Here are a few more revelations I took away from the Frontline show:

  • There are dangers on the internet, but many are different than we naive adults think.
    Turns out, for example, that most kids well know that if an online stranger asks for their real name and address, that’s bad news and they should wipe them off their access list and out of their cyber lives. In fact, the kids who succumb to evil online predators are usually those who willingly collaborate with them. For some reason (I’d put the teens’ sense of invulnerability at the top of the list), they too are looking to cross the line from cyberbuddy to an in-the-flesh relationship, sometimes with devastating results.
  • Cyberbullying is the most devastating bullying in the history of the world.
    This kind of cruelty – which only kids seem capable of – doesn’t end in the playground, but follows a child home. Plus, everyone and his uncle gets involved or at least knows about the humiliation. (The Frontline show has a tragic example of this.)

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I contend that ensuring that your kids can safely negotiate and mine the riches of the internet without getting burned is one of the great new parenting challenges in the 21st century. That’s no surprise to you. A previous two part Dr. P blog entitled “Big Mother is watching: Should we spy on our kids?” continues to generate more comments than anything else on which I have written. In another post, I opined on how to try to keep your kids safe from cyberbullying.

As is painfully obvious to you by now, I’m no expert at this stage and, probably, neither are you. But you and I need to become one, and soon. Watch the Frontline show so we can begin to address the real question for all of us: what should we do about it?

Here’s another suggestion: do an experiment (as I plan to do and will report back to you) and set up your own account at one of these sites, pretending to be a bright innocent teen, and see what happens. Then let’s share our experiences.

In the meantime I’d love to hear how you are dealing (or plan to deal) with your child and internet social networking sites.

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You can watch the Frontline program online (+ read a lot of other good stuff) here.

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Posted by: Steven Parker MD at 4:51 pm


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