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
Just as social-networking sites and Internet communications can accelerate and amplify adolescents' normal sexual explorations, they can do the same with another time-honored teenage tradition: bullying. The old sticks-and-stones nursery rhyme seems quaint now that there's a virtual bathroom wall where kids put all manner of words and images to nasty effect. They may post an unflattering bogus profile claiming a schoolmate is an out-of-control drunk or drug user, with a picture of him passed out at a party, for example, or send scathing text messages among groups of friends when one girl dates someone a friend higher up in the social pecking order is interested in. Dozens of her friends may weigh in-"You're such a whore."I can't believe you're such a slut."-with instant messages. "Online bullying is more vicious and damaging because it's wider spread," says Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use in Eugene, Ore., an education and outreach organization. "More people have access to the communication, and there's the ability to combine damaging images."
The Internet also allows kids to impersonate one another, something that's nearly impossible to do in a school hallway. Last year, five schoolmates at a St. Louis high school decided to post a "hot/not hot" list of more than 100 female classmates, with racist and sexist comments, on Facebook. They signed the name of a 17-year-old junior, who learned of the list only when one of the girls asked him about it. "He was mortified," says Nancy, the boy's mother, who asked to use her first name only. "It was incredibly upsetting, and we were absolutely powerless."
Affirmation. As parents of teenagers are well aware, adolescence is an intensely social time, and now teens can be connected with their peers night and day. Psychologists and Internet experts say they are seeing a growing number of kids who are addicted to being online. Kids who are socially anxious or insecure may be particularly vulnerable, says Willard. Having tons of online friends and being in constant contact through text messaging or cellphones reinforce a feeling of acceptance. But these teens may come to need that hit of affirmation in the brick-and-mortar world to feel OK, she says. Setting limits on the amount of time children can spend online is one obvious strategy, but it's also critical for parents to emphasize the importance of having a balance of interests and activities. This only works, however, if parents themselves have balanced lives and aren't online all the time.
Still, social networking can also be a good thing for some teenagers. "A shy kid who has a terribly hard time expressing himself one-on-one may be much more comfortable conversing online," says Maxwell. Likewise, teens facing difficult issues-gay teens who don't feel comfortable coming out to their parents, for example-can get support online from others in the same situation.
Despite the hand-wringing that teens are spending too many hours online, not every kid is clamoring for a MySpace profile. Elisabeth Moore, a 14-year-old in Stockton Springs, Maine, checked out the site a few months ago and decided not to go back. "It seemed kind of pointless," says Moore, "seeing all these people who don't have much to do except go on the computer. You have your friends in real life; you might as well stick to them."