My 12-year-old son, Jacob, has been nagging me about getting a Facebook page and/or Google Plus account. He also says instead of holiday presents, he wants AT&T gift cards so he can purchase a smart phone.
I don't know where I fall in the scale of leniency, but on occasion I let him stay up late, watch some inappropriate movies, and eat crap. He walks to and from school every day and often to town, the park, and his friends' houses without an escort. He's always been responsible and reliable so I've continued to loosen the reins.
But kids engaging in cyberspace freaks me out.
I see no good reason for him to have access to the internet on his phone, when there's no adult to monitor his activity. The only places he says he visits are ESPN.com, his fantasy team stat pages, and YouTube. He can do all that at home with an adult present.
Part of my argument is that he's already playing XBox, watching sports and other TV, and texting. I don't need his face glued to another screen. The other issue is I don't want him engaging in social media at this age. He's a kid who loves playing football in the park with his brothers or hanging out with a bunch of friends in town-- you know, human engagement.
I'm afraid if he starts connecting with other kids online, he'll get sucked into that culture, which too often chooses typing over speaking, and posting pictures over being in the moment.
I'm not naive. I know he'll be on social media soon enough. It's a fact of life in high school. But right now, in 7th grade, I see no grounds for it. I don't believe he will be missing out or ostracized socially for not having a Facebook page or an iPhone. He's an extremely likable and social kid. He can still text friends on his simple phone. In fact, I argue it may make him more mysterious and desirable to the girls he wants to attract.
A local policewoman who specializes in cyber crime came to speak to a community group of seventh graders recently and I listened in. She opened the talk with a story about a 14-year-old kid who friended another teen on the social network Tagged.com. The two became gaming friends and sent messages to each other through the site. After several months, the teen invited his new friend to his house. When he opened the door, his "friend" wasn't a kid, it was an adult male who pushed his way into the apartment and beat and sexually assaulted him.
Horrifying. But real.
The officer told several anecdotes with the point that once you start engaging -- whether on a phone, via email, or on a social networking site-- you are trackable and there is a record of your activity. The more details you reveal online, the easier it is for people (with good and bad intentions) to find you. And, every time you engage, you're at higher risk of creating a permanent online profile that you might regret later.
Kids are under the impression that if you delete something, it's gone forever but this cop said that's just not true. Her job is to uncover information that may have been deleted, but still exists.
The officer also discussed cyber bullying, especially on sites like Facebook and Google Plus. Last year at least 1 million kids were cyber bullied on Facebook alone. She recommended not friending anyone you don't know, which sounds obvious to adults but not to kids who want to have a high friend count. She also warned that many of the harassment complaints she sees originate from fake Facebook pages.
Her advice for parents:
-- Regularly Google your child's name to see what comes up.
--Always use all privacy settings on social media pages.
--Report cyber bullying right away and print out evidence before it gets deleted.
--Never give away your power. Often if you (or your child) respond, you're no longer a victim. If you don't engage or argue, the bully loses.
Unfortunately, cyber laws have not caught up to technology so often harassment and misuse go unpunished.
I know we can't protect our kids from everything, but I plan to keep mine off-line for as long as possible. Even if it's just for another year or two. In the meantime, we'll be discussing the dangers of online engagement and he'll have to prove to me he understands the gravity before he gets the privilege.
I'm not very popular with Jacob right now, but that's ok. When he finally wears me down and gets on Facebook, he'll have to be my friend whether he likes me or not.