Does your teen spend hours online and you have only a vague idea of what he may be doing or who he is conversing with? Perhaps you’re the parent of a tween and fear the day when she will be uploading her profile pictures or writing a blog on one of the popular social-networking sites like Myspace or Facebook? You are certainly not alone in your fears; research shows that the numbers of children online are skyrocketing. According to last year’s Jupiter Research Online Behavior and Demographics report, the online teen population regularly accessing the Internet will peak in 2008 at 20.9 million.
A 2007 report released by Comscore Data found that 70 percent of today’s fifteen to thirty-four year-olds “utilize social-networking sites at all hours of the day and night to fulfill diverse reasons.”
These statistics alone don’t tell the whole picture, clearly, and that is what inspired Anastasia Goodstein, author of Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens are Really Doing Online, published in early 2007 by St. Martin’s Press. Goodstein says that media coverage has hyped the dangers of the online world to the extent that parents are overly afraid.
“I think that because the coverage of online predators has been so sensationalized in the media, especially with programs like Dateline’s ‘To Catch a Predator,’ online predators are many parents’ number one concern. The reality is that more children and teens are abducted or assaulted by someone they know than a stranger they meet online,” she explains.
Goodstein interviewed many parents of teens when conducting research for her book and is currently on a book tour across America where she answers questions in a Town Hall format at various high school PTAs. (For a complete listing of her tour dates, visit her Web site.)
The blogger and former journalist says that she likes to educate parents to better help them understand who is on social-networking sites in order to ease their fears. “Law enforcement has begun to release information about which teens are engaging with online predators, and it’s not the children or teens who naïvely post photos of themselves wearing T-shirts with their school name on it. More often than not, it’s children or teens who are already at risk, meaning they have either been victimized in the past, or are having problems at home. These are the teens more vulnerable to adults who want to prey on them,” she says.
“We’ve also learned that most predators aren’t posing as children but are pretty up front about their intentions. The good news is that most teens simply ignore adults who approach them online or block or delete them. They’re also beginning to make their profiles private—just for friends. Pew Internet found that 66 percent of teens with profiles are using their privacy settings,” Goodstein adds.
While this is good news, it doesn’t let parents off the hook. Goodstein’s book helps parents navigate this new world and helps them better monitor it and set limits for their children—just as they would do with any other activity.
“What parents should really be doing is engaging with their teens to make sure that they understand the public and permanent nature of the Internet—that they think about what they are posting and who might find it before they hit publish,” Goodstein adds.
So the basic rules learned in elementary school still hold true online. Treat others as you would like to be treated. If you aren’t a bully on the playground, you don’t become one online. If you don’t talk with strangers at the mall, you don’t talk to strangers online. Talking with children about what they are experiencing is important, but only if parents can truly understand and not threaten teens that they’ll “pull the plug if something bad happens,” Goodstein says. This way, children are more likely to open up about what they are reading or seeing online.
And, if a parent is truly curious and concerned, reading a child’s blog is fair game as a blog is in the public domain—so it isn’t the same as sneaking into a child’s room and reading her journal. It’s a good idea, however, to give your teen a heads up or to ask if he would mind if you read it. Surprisingly, Goodstein says this has actually helped some parents get to know their teens much better; teens, like many adults, can be more comfortable typing than talking.
Goodstein says she is thrilled to bring her message of “Don’t panic” to as many parents in the United States as possible, but at the same time, her book is chock full of advice on setting limits and how to best manage children’s time and activities online.
“Parents often tell me they feel relieved after hearing my talk or reading the book. And once parents stop being afraid of what teens and tweens are doing online, they can do what parents do best—set limits, provide guidance, and teach their children how to become young adults, online and off. Hopefully, an added benefit will be that parents end up being closer to their teens through engaging with them about their digital lives,” Goodstein says.
The Totally Wired PTA Tour (sponsored by Beinggirl.com and Real Girls Media) is kicking off in fall 2007 and will most likely be coming to Florida, Virginia, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and Boston. If you are a member of a local PTA or other parents group in any of these areas and are interested in having Anastasia speak, please contact Greg Tirrell at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit Goodstein’s site.
Related Article: Internet Safety.