It's the coolest hangout space for teens-but parents might be surprised at what their kids do there. Here's how to help keep them safe online
Even though social-networking sites, instant messaging, chat rooms, E-mail, and the like may not seem to qualify as social gathering spots to parents, for teens, they function very much like the malls and burger joints of earlier eras. They're where young people go to hang out, gossip, posture, dare, and generally figure out how the world works. "What you see is all the behaviors you should recognize from your own teenage years," says Danah Boyd, a doctoral candidate at Berkeley who has studied children's social practices online. "The difference is that now it's less physical and more word-based."
It's also available 24-7. A teenager might check MySpace from home before heading off to school to see if anyone added a comment to his page overnight. Many schools block social-networking sites, but after school, teens often spend hours on them. They'll check their own profiles to see what comments friends may have posted on them, which may be public and available for all the world to read. They may write a few sentences or a couple of paragraphs in their blogs. They'll probably also instant message, or IM, friends to recap the day's events or make plans, upload new photos, or change the music on their page. Then they'll visit their friends' pages to see if they've uploaded any new photos or videos, read new comments from other friends, and post comments of their own. "People have their friends, and now they have the Internet, too," says Matt Zeitlin, a 16-year-old junior in Piedmont, Calif. "It's a more evolved way to communicate than a telephone or cellphone or IM." For some teens, keeping up with their friends online becomes almost an obsession. They compulsively check their messages and look to see who's remarking on their page throughout the day.
Parenting in this virtual world doesn't require a whole new set of skills, though a little technological savvy sure doesn't hurt. What it does require is a willingness to pay attention, ask a lot of questions, and set some rules and stick by them, even at the risk of making your kids mad at you-familiar parenting territory.
"Chicken." But too often that's not happening. Parents who would never allow their child to go to a party unless they knew that an adult would be present let their kids pilot themselves through the online world without any supervision whatsoever. A June survey of 267 pairs of teens and parents in the Los Angeles metropolitan area by a psychology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills found that two thirds of parents had never talked with their teen about their MySpace use, and 38 percent of them had never seen their child's MySpace profile. "Parents are chicken," says Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.org, a nonprofit aimed at keeping kids safe online that has trained 450 teenagers in online safety and sends them out to speak to schools and other groups. "They don't understand the technology, so they're reluctant to get involved."