I was recently interviewed for our local Tribune about kids and social media. Imagine my surprise when I woke up yesterday to find the article on the front page! It was a great and unintentional Birthday Surprise. I re-printed it here in case you didn’t have a chance to read the original article. I’d love to hear your feedback about this important topic.
Well-connected tweens worry parents, officials Should middle school kids have access to texting, Twitter, other social networks?
Michelle Wegner recognizes the value of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
The Granger mom uses them every day to promote her blog.
But, when it comes to her three daughters’ use of the same technology, she straddles the line.
Wegner acknowledges the potential dangers and misuse that can arise when kids have access to the Internet, but she also believes that with proper supervision, it can be a powerful tool.
When the family, which includes Wegner’s husband, Rob Wegner, a pastor at Granger Community Church, went on a mission trip to India last summer, she set up Twitter accounts for the couple’s two oldest daughters, Maddie, 11, and Whitney, 10.
She carefully chose who she’d allow to “follow” the girls on Twitter and had all corresponding e-mails sent to her own address.
“We wanted people on this end to get our kids’ perspectives on what that kind of encounter (in India) would be like,” she said.
Most of the girls’ tweets were humorous and light, Wegner said, often referencing things like how they were excited to find a restaurant that served hamburgers, but then disappointed when they were full of hot peppers.
But, some things the girls posted were more poignant, such as the advantages they began recognizing Americans have.
After the trip, Whitney sent out her last India-related tweet.
“She wrote, ‘I never realized how much I have until I got home and saw my house,’ ” her mom said.
Push for a ban
Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J., attracted national media attention in recent weeks when Principal Tony Orsini sent an e-mail to parents asking them to get their kids off all social networking sites and to monitor their text messages.
In a phone interview with The Tribune last week, Orsini said there wasn’t one particular incident that led to him requesting the voluntary ban, but rather a culmination of them.
“I’ve met with a lot of parents who are in pain because their kids are in pain (because of something that’s been posted about them on a social networking site),” he said.
“It’s not really cyberbullying,” he said, but rather incidences such as one student starting a group on Facebook called “Johnny is ugly” and then many students joining it.
Or two friends will get in a fight, one will post a comment about the other and yet more will scramble to take sides.
So far, Orsini said, the community has been receptive to his request. Parents have been empowered, he said, to make the decision to not allow their kids to use sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Orsini said he’s not completely opposed to social networking and realizes it’s part of the world in the 21st century.
“When they (students) get a little older and can emotionally handle it, it’s not a negative thing,” he said.
Locally, a middle school principal, two guidance counselors and a Mishawaka DARE officer all agree the use of social networking sites can be problematic for middle school students.
At Discovery Middle School, student squabbles related to text messaging or Facebook and MySpace posts pop up several times a week, said guidance counselors Sandra Badur and Connie Long.
“Usually, we get the next-day fallout,” Badur said, “We get the child that comes in who’s upset.”
As Orsini said, many times the disturbances involve name-calling initiated by an off-line conflict.
Girls are more often involved in starting rumors, the counselors said, but boys also get involved in name-calling via online gaming sites.
And while some parents might brush the behaviors off as a stage that all kids go through, they should understand that the anonymity of the Internet has a way of amplifying them, the women said.
“Texting (a put-down) makes it impersonal,” Long said.
Sheryll Harper, principal of Discovery, said cyberbullying is indeed a big deal, but it’s something the school has worked hard to combat.
“We’ve really stepped up our communications with kids about what bullying is,” she said. “What worries me is that parents don’t understand the capacity of the Internet.”
Lt. Tim Williams, the DARE officer for School City of Mishawaka’s elementary schools, said like the New Jersey principal, he, too, has seen an increase in the number of kids who put each other down via text messaging and social networking sites on the Internet.
In his educational sessions for students, Williams said, he explains that bystanders to cyberbullying can be just as culpable as the offenders.
“They just want to see how big it gets,” he said.
When cyberbullying escalates to the point where threats are made, Williams said, the law in Indiana allows police to step in to investigate.
What’s the solution?
Dominic Caristi, a telecommunications professor at Ball State University, said middle-school-age kids indeed need to have limits when it comes to using text messaging and social networking sites, but he doesn’t agree with an all-out ban on those things.
“I don’t think the solution is to order them not to (use social networking),” Caristi said. “It won’t be successful. Rather, we should teach them how to be responsible (users).”
Regarding cell phones, Caristi said, parents should establish rules about when and how they’ll be used.
And, kids should be educated about how photos that you put on the Internet for your friends to see can also be seen by your friends’ friends and others.
While advocating definite boundaries, Caristi, however, stops short of advising parents to insist on having access to every text message, e-mail and Facebook comment initiated by their kids and their kids’ friends.
“No, I’m not going to get into the business of monitoring my child’s communications,” he said.
For example, he said, some parents may have a false sense of security because they’ve “friended” their kids on Facebook. In reality, Facebook users can set up multiple pages and friend whomever they want at each.
Even with all of the potential dangers, Caristi said the upside to exposing middle-schoolers to technology outweigh the disadvantages.
For parents who say they’ll simply not allow their kids to send text messages or use social networking sites, he has a message, too.
“(Kids) can still use computers at their friends’ houses, schools and libraries,” he said. “Some have access via smart phones.” So, rather than banning such activities, he said, “it’s better to be clear about what your expectations are.”