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Is Your Child Really Happy on Facebook?

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a young teen who uses social networks as the primary way of connecting to peers.

It used to be that the vast majority of interactions and friendship forming took place in the real world – at and after school; on the weekends, at parties and the movies; and through ongoing team sports programs. But the rise of Facebook and other social networks has changed all that. And now it’s the virtual world that so often brings teens “together.” In fact, one could make a strong case that kids spend more time socializing with their social network than they do in person.

Indeed, when teens choose to socialize on social networks, it’s clearly not the same thing as being face-to-face with someone. As Douglas A. Gentile, director of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, has said about excessive adolescent screen use, “It may not be isolating so much, as socially distorting."

But the full picture comes into extra-sharp focus in the latest worrisome research just out from the Pew Research Center http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Teens-and-social-media.aspx.

According to the survey:

·      88% of teens who use social networks have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on one of these sites.

·      41% of teens who use social networks say they have experienced a negative outcome, including a face-to-face argument, physical fight or confrontation with someone; the termination of a friendship; nervousness about going to school the next day; or getting in trouble at school as a result of what transpired on one of these sites.

·      19% of teens who use social networks have been bullied – either in person, online, by text, or by phone.

These numbers are, to put it quite bluntly, disturbing. And they help explain why teens usually choose negative adjectives like “rude,” “mean,” “fake,” “crude,” “over-dramatic,” and “disrespectful” when they are asked to describe their peers’ behavior on social networks.

The perverse – and even maddening – part of all this is that many teens make, and keep, good friends on social networking sites, even though it’s sometimes an uncomfortable digital environment.

So, what’s a parent to do? How can you help protect your kid from the negative or perilous experiences that lurk on social network sites?

To be honest, it’s hard. Because, unlike the real world, where you can look over your child’s shoulder – by actually meeting their friends, getting to know their friends’ parents, monitoring where they are, and watching what they’re doing – the virtual world allows kids to hide behind the Internet screen and mask their behavior.

This “Observation Gap” is a real problem, and we need to find ways to close it, in order to keep our kids safe, and to give them a better chance for teenage happiness among their peers.

As a parent of three teens and long-time technology executive, I believe that new tools that monitor kids’ behavior and activity on social networks make a tremendous amount of sense. The best of these social Web solutions scan and analyze activities to identify potentially dangerous, illicit or inappropriate social networking behavior that needs to be addressed; then the solutions offer understandable and actionable assessments and reports so the right parental decisions can be made.

There is good news in all of this.

The recent Pew data indicates that parents and teens are at least talking about the dangers of the social networks and thus becoming more aware and proactive. Indeed, 94% of parents of online teens say they have talked with their teen about what kinds of things should and should not be shared online.

Of course, that doesn’t insure teen safety or happiness on social networks. Nor does “friending” your child, or periodically checking to see what your child has been up to. And, if your child has 500 “friends,” it’s virtually impossible to know them all, or to monitor all the social activity, as a parent.

Which brings me back to the technological advances we’re making when it comes to social network monitoring technology/tools for parents.

From my vantage point, the technology now works well with enough built-in intelligence and logic to serve as a useful parenting tool. It's no longer a simple exception reporting or keyword reporting technology; instead, it’s truly able to assist parents.

Another positive is that there’s now widespread recognition that the problems for teens are very real on social networks; people also generally realize that these problems represent a unique and different type of cyber- risk, as opposed to what parents had to worry about in the past. It’s unfortunate, however, that some innocent teens had to suffer before the media and parents took this seriously, but the new awareness is definitely constructive.

For their part, the major social networks have sensed the need for more privacy features, privacy controls, education, and other protective features, despite their continued advocacy for sharing of information. In my opinion, this is a significant step forward.

Now more parents need to fully realize that social networks represent real dangers for their kids. Parents also need to know that they can’t protect their kids on social networks all by themselves; they need help. And, as a result, there really needs to be wider adoption of monitoring tools and solutions.

Over the next 12 months, we must see governmental and private industry policies tightened up and clarified in this area as well. This is critical if we really want to protect and enrich our kids on social networks.

Finally, the major technology security and family protection brands must add social networks to their range of coverage. This is a huge gap that must be plugged up in the name of teen safety.

Again, none of this is particularly easy. But I believe that it’s our responsibility to do everything that is humanly possible to make the social network experience a beneficial one for vulnerable adolescents everywhere.

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George Garrick is President and CEO of SocialShield, the leading cloud-based social network monitoring service. It gives parents affordable, easy-to-use, state-of-the-art tools to help them enhance Internet safety for their children in the online environment.

 

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