Are Social Networking Websites A Dangerous Gamble for Kids?

Child-computer The Scotland Herald isn't the first place most people turn for commentary on how virtual worlds are changing our social experiences, but their recent article on the changing face of childrens' play is thought provoking.

t's an interesting topic worthy of some focus for Wednesday's and Friday's articles.

Let's look at how children are moving from the playground to the Metaverse for entertainment, and the shift from real to virtual means the concept of safety is evolving as well.

From Playground to Playstation 3

The Herald stokes worries many parents have about the current mix of net-savvy kids, Facebook profiles, and the pseudoanonymity provided by avatars and forum handles. From the article:

The question in the mind is: have you sent her off to a virtual version
of the local playpark – with good facilities, chatting to friends in
the sunlight, in a well-run, somewhat monitored space?

Or have you left
her to wander into the gloomy, unpredictable woods of cyberspace, where
duplicitous wolves, terrible visions and worse lie in wait?

Virtual worlds and social networks open up novel new avenues of communication, but with those new means come new pitfalls. Earlier this year, MySpace blocked over 90,000 sex offenders from accessing the teen-oriented social networking website, but the porous nature of social networking technology meant that the bulk of those sex offenders were later found with newly-created Facebook accounts.

The safety of young users is a serious concern, and The Herald doesn't allow hysteria to alter its recommendations for improving the online experience:

An eminently sensible report on e-parenting from the childhood guru
Tanya Byron, Bright Sparks, deploys some useful analogies.

Cyber-parenting should be like teaching our children to cross the road
safely. We would hardly begin the process by chucking them immediately
out into the street. Instead, we move through gradual stages of
ability, through to competence, and eventually independence.

The Benefits of Youth in the Metaverse

Educating young users on how to safely browse social networking websites and virtual worlds makes infinitely more sense than banning them outright, as some fear-mongers have proposed. It's also conducive to the hundreds of businesses that have made social networking and its tendrils into a serious industry.

Social media marketers downplay potential risks, and companies like Zynga are raking in tens of millions of dollars in revenue every year partly due to the widespread youth appeal of games like FarmVille and Vampire Wars. The social game industry supported by the existence of easy-access websites like Facebook would collapse if young browsers vanished.

As The Herald notes, there are definite risks that always come with the involvement of young people in any social sphere, but education and proper parenting can help remove most of the worst possibilities. They employ a good definition of the possibility of virtual socializing:

The point is to accept that the net is not a dark infernal realm, nor
just ordinary-society-writ-large, but a new and wonder-filled kind of
social space.

Lawrence Lessig calls it an “innovation commons” – an open, collective
structure through which many unleashed energies of human creativity are
coursing. It has a dynamic, emergent magic about it – not literally,
but metaphorically – which many of us would wish to somehow preserve.

Would anyone argue that a teenager sneaking late-night instant messaging sessions with his girlfriend is worse than that same teenager sneaking out in the car after curfew to steal some kisses in the back seat? As our means of communication evolve, they present both positives and negatives. The smart thing to do is discover ways to expand on positive aspects while educating about possible pitfalls.

Expect more on this on Friday, when I dig into a major British newspaper's assertions that social media and social networking turn children into school-failing, antisocial zombies. As you can imagine, there's far more of an agenda than actual fact. Social media is definitely changing the ways kids communicate, but it's not in the world-shattering ways mainstream media outlets seem to think.