Reconciling Social Networking and Parenting.

As you folks can see on the sidebar, I use twitter. I never got into using myspace or facebook, those things didn’t really interest me, but I love the language challenge inherent in twitter. You have 140 characters to sum up what you are doing right now. Make your point quickly, get in, get out and have fun.

I love it. I use twitter a lot, and my twitter page is updated more frequently than this blog ever has been. But today I started thinking about social networking seriously for the first time because it occurred to me that social networking has become an integral part of our society and that hit me when a kid who was the same age as my youngest child started following me on twitter and revealed their age.

First, I did what any parent would do in that situation. I warned them about the dangers of the internet and told them not to reveal their age to others, and even now, I am doing what I can to protect the kid because I am leaving age and gender out of this article in the interest of their safety and well-being. But then I started seriously thinking about it. This kid is the same age as my kid, and this kid is hanging out on twitter and talking about getting a job and this kid could end up getting a job before they turn 18, just because of twitter and the social connections it provides.

That was a pretty amazing thought because you see, I banned social networking sites in my house. But I didn’t just tell the kids, “You can’t go to myspace.” No no, not me. See, I have a husband that is an awesome computer geek and I had him put those sites on the block list in our firewall. When our kids try to go to those pages from their computer, the web browser returns the error “Access to this site has been blocked by Administrator (Dad).” This was done the moment I heard about myspace. So, when my kids mentioned their friends having myspace pages, I looked at them like they were insane. The very idea of allowing my children to participate in social networking, when there are so many variables in it that are beyond my control just terrifies me and I don’t understand how parents can let their kids do it.

I am sure that every kid is different and every parent is better adapted to parenting their individual children than any other parent, but really for me, it’s about protecting my kids from the wide, wide world. There are some sick bastards out there. Like this one, this one and this one. But in some ways, I wonder if I am not doing my kids a disservice by limiting their internet access.

The skill of the future is not going to be what you know, but how to get at the information. I believe that we are quickly entering a world where we will have to know how to spend time advertising ourselves and our services online in order to get jobs. Case in point, since my husband opened his twitter account in June, he has had seven job offers. I think this is an excellent indicator that we are entering a world that is very different from one where social networking did not exist. And because of my somewhat antiquated views on things, I am beginning to think that I am crippling my children by keeping them out of it. I also find myself in a position where I need to balance the safety of my children against the value of the skills they acquire in using the internet. This is especially tough because both of my children have been targeted by bullies in school since they walked through the doors on the first day. I have no expectations that the internet will be any different for them and would like them to have at least some experiences where they feel they can interact with others safely and with reasonable expectations that they will not come to harm. I really feel that they are being taught enough about cruelty in the public school system and out there in the not virtual world, why should the virtual world be cruel too? But I guess that is where I come to the crux of the entire scenario.

The lines between the virtual world and the real world are quickly becoming blurred. Things that take place in cyberspace have a very profound impact on the world at large. Viruses that take out massive computer networks show up on the front pages of the New York Times. Bullying a girl on the internet can drive her to commit suicide.

The reason for this is that while the communication is virtual, the people who are communicating are still real people. It is possible to make connections between the virtual world and the physical one by doing something as simple as handing out a phone number or an address and from there, the bullying or stalking, or whatever it is stops being virtual. It stops being held out at arm’s length and transcends the internet. From there, it becomes real.

How do you parent a child in a world like this and still allow them to acquire skills that will be necessary for their futures?

I don’t have any answers to that one yet, but I can promise you that I am looking for them and as soon as I have some ideas, I’ll let you in on the secret. Until then, I think that my family is better served by keeping myspace, twitter and other social networking sites blocked from the public access machines.

How do you handle it?

Post your thoughts in the comments.