Children's Voice May/June 2008

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The Down to Earth Dad

The Balancing Act: Getting It Right for Children's Sake

By Patrick Mitchell

A Space of Their Own

The benefits of interacting online far outweigh the dangers. Change your attitude about the Internet. What kids get from the Internet is far greater than the damage that it can do."

That's what Brendesha Tynes, Professor of Educational Psychology and African American Studies at the University of Illinois--Urbana-Champaign, told me recently. Her article, "Internet Safety Gone Wild? Sacrificing the Educational and Psychosocial Benefits of Online Social Environments," appeared in The Journal of Adolescent Research in November 2007.

Overprotective (but well-meaning) parents, she worries, can sabotage teens' opportunities to receive the educational and psycho-social benefits of social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, Friendster, and Bebo. The sites can be wonderful backdrops for vitally needed teen self-expression, she contends; however, out of fear for their teens' safety, many parents curtail the use of such sites. The result is decreased opportunities for self-expression, Tynes says, and fewer chances to experience the unique educational and social growth that responsible use of such sites provides.

An estimated 140 million people are on MySpace, and 25% of them are between ages 13 and 17, she notes. To stay up on current happenings, she subscribes to an online news service that e-mails articles to her about social networking sites. "Every day, I get about six articles [by e-mail] warning parents and educators about the dangers of the Internet. I haven't seen much in the past couple of years where people are talking about the benefits," she tells me.

Enhancing "Critical Thinking" Skills

"There are a number of educational and psycho-social benefits to interacting in online social environments like MySpace, chat rooms, and discussion boards," Tynes says. "What you get is kids being able to improve on critical thinking and argumentation skills. For instance, someone posts a message on the Internet, and people read it. Then, if you want to respond to that person's message, you have to think a bit about what you're going to say in your post.

"This opportunity to understand the views of other youth...seems to me like an exceptional educational benefit of interacting in these online spaces. Social networking sites help teens hone communication skills. I call it their 'training wheels' for a number of discussions, thought processes, and relationship issues."

Allowing Space for Social Connections

Social networking sites can provide a sense of autonomy for adolescents. "They need a space of their own," Tynes says. "Rather than trying to control them more, we need to back off a bit and let them explore these spaces on their own. I'm not saying parents should completely relinquish control; I'm saying talk to [your] child and [don't be] constantly looking over their shoulder. They get to connect with friends in online settings, and research has shown that their connection to friends, and the quality of the friendships they build, is associated with their well-being--satisfaction with life and self-esteem."

Staying Safe Online

Children need an exit strategy to avoid unwanted online attention. They also need to know how to block people who may be harassing them, and they need to understand not to give out personal information, Tynes says. Meanwhile, parents need to be careful not to let fear get the better of them. "Some parents make it so the computer has to stay in the living room, and whenever their kid logs on they have to be sitting right there. But I think that sort of defeats one of the [social networking] purposes of being able to interact in these online spaces."

The information superhighway has become busier, and we want children to look both ways before crossing it; still, we know they must cross because, as Tynes notes, the benefits of interacting online far outweigh the dangers. Still, Tynes would be among the first to agree that social networking sites are valuable tools only for those children and parents who exercise appropriate caution in their use.

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and facilitates the Dads Matter!™ Project for early childhood programs, schools, and child- and family-serving organizations. He conducts keynote addresses, workshops, and inservice and preservice trainings. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the Dads Matter!™ Project for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.


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