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Jennifer Klepper is an ex-corporate attorney turned PTO president, volunteer child advocate and Cwist contributor. She is leading a discussion on inspriring curiosity and independence in girls with nature. Read and Comment »
Anastasia Goodstein is the author of Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens are Really Doing Online. Read more »
Cathy from Rosemont, PA, writes:
My sixteen-year-old daughter met someone online (through Instant Messenger) that she wants to meet in person. She says he is her age and attends a school not too far away. I've told her that she can't be absolutely certain what a person online says is true. She thinks it would be safe and I'm nervous. What position should I take?
First off, it's great that your daughter came to you with this issue -- that speaks highly of your relationship. I would ask her how she met this person on IM, i.e. do they have any friends in common? Did they meet on a particular website, if so, which one? What school does he say he goes to?
Based on this information, if it seems like this boy may be a local teenager, tell her she can meet him, but only in a public place like a coffee shop, and only if you can accompany her and meet him, too. She may balk at this, but as you said, "she can't be absolutely certain what a person online says is true." Just tell her that this is for her own protection, and that if the boy sincerely wants to be her friend, he shouldn't mind. As a rule, teenagers should never meet strangers they meet online in person without an adult accompanying them. It's essential to emphasize to them that while not every stranger is potentially a predator, it is possible for people to misrepresent themselves online (as you said), and that you can never be too careful. Unfortunately some teens don't go to their parents with this dilemma first before meeting strangers -- those are the teens we should really be worried about.
Shannon from Phoenix, AZ, writes:
My nine-year-old son is getting more interested in the Internet and online games. A new friend suggested he look into Silk Road Online. When we reviewed the Web page, it seemed apparent to me that it was not for kids his age (maybe even only for adults). When I told him it was not appropriate, he got very upset and said his friend would get angry with him for not playing on this site. I reminded him that each family has its own rules and in our family he may not access these types of Web sites. I also noted that this kid might not be a great friend if his friendship is conditional on playing an online game. Do you have any other advice on dealing with this?
Silk Road Online is what is referred to as a massive multi-player online role playing game or MMORPG. Other popular games like this are World of Warcraft, Everquest and Star Wars Galaxies. This particular game is owned by a Korean company. Players will typically download software in order to play the game on their computer. They are connected to the Internet and are playing with other characters who are logged on from computers around the world. For some games or to access advanced features, players pay a monthly subscription charge. Silk Road appears to be free. I couldn't find a rating for it, but I think your hunch that it might be too mature for a 9-year-old is probably correct.
I actually think the biggest danger in this type of game is not that kids are playing with adults, it's getting sucked in for hours at a time. Most of what happens in games like Silk Road or World of Warcraft is focused role playing -- you become a character and then interact with other characters in a specific world to achieve different goals. It's not so different from Dungeons & Dragons -- it's just digital. So it's less about hanging out and chatting and more about reaching higher levels. And while I doubt anyone is going to learn a lot about history playing this game, it does take place on the "Silk Road," the ancient trading pathway connecting Asia and Europe. So your son's character was running around in a virtual historical place.
As for your conversation with your son, if you can tell him you understand why a game like that sounds like it would be fun, but that he's just not quite old enough to play that particular game yet -- that might get you further than just a hard "no." I think searching for other games he might like that are age appropriate like The Sims, Disney's Toon Town or City of Heroes, might soften the blow. If you are dead set against him playing Silk Road, you may want to have a chat with his friend's parents or else he'll probably continue to play it, just not at home.
Game play can be safe, fun and even help build cognitive and attention skills. It can also be addictive. Just make sure you know what your son is playing and tell him when to turn it off -- he'll beg for just five more minutes, but you have to be firm, an hour at a time feels about right for a 9-year-old.
Susan from Seattle, WA, writes:
In your opinion what are the most important things for parents to tell tweens to keep them and their identities safe in Cyberspace?
Dear Susan,For tweens under 13, they should only be on sites with your permission. They cannot legally register on any site that is for teens 13 and up unless they lie. For this reason, it's important to talk to them about not lying about their age to go on sites where they are not supposed to be (like MySpace, which is actually 14 and up).
For more specific information and tips on age
appropriate Internet use for tweens and tweens, check out
this article on CNET
Jeffery from Charlottesville, VA, writes:
My kids have expressed interest in sites like Club Penguin and Webkinz. On the one hand, it looks like they have some educational value, but I'm not entirely comfortable with the "virtual reality" aspect. What's a good way to judge how appropriate these sites are for your kids, and what age should they be to go there?
I don't know that Club Penguin or Webkinz are educational in a traditional sense (in that they are teaching specific language or math skills), but they are educational in that they begin to teach kids how to interact with each other in the digital world. And it's these digital literacy skills that will help them navigate their online lives as they get older. For example, there are lots of other kids on Club Penguin. Sometimes kids can be mean, like you try to be their penguin friend and their penguin makes an angry face at you. This can be really upsetting for a young child, but it's a great conversation to have about meanness, bullying and how to deal with other children online and off. It's their first taste of being social online. Both Club Penguin and Webkinz offer a very basic, controlled way to chat. Club Penguin filters out all objectionable language and Webkinz is actually pre-scripted -- neither let kids give out personal information to other kids in world. Other than that, it's more about playing the games they have to offer and earning digital currency to buy virtual penguin or Webkinz gear.
Club Penguin is appropriate for kids ages six and up and is subscription based so there are no companies advertising to children (or parents) on the service. The virtual reality aspect you're talking about is not so different than kids pretending or role playing with each other in the backyard. In some ways it's more limiting because you can just be a penguin!
As for Webkinz, which is also for kids six and older, that's a bit of a different beast since it's directly tied to owning a product and run by the company that makes that product. First you buy the stuffed animal, then you get a secret code to enter the Webkinz world. It's similar to Neopets or Tamagotchis in that the goal is to care for your new pet. If you don't, they don't do so hot. So you can learn a lesson from that as well.
If you let your kids play on these sites, it's important for you to go to each site and read the parents information. Click on a demo or take a tour to see how the site works -- they have to get your permission for your child to register if he or she is under 13. Then sit with them the first few times and watch how your child plays and interacts. As with any screen time, you want to limit how much time they can spend on these sites. For example, if they get their homework done, they can play on Club Penguin for one hour. The best thing you can do for your child is understand where they go online and be involved and engaged in setting limits. It seems like you're on the right track!
Also, check out Common Sense Media for reviews of all of these new websites and games. They review each one for parents and tell you what age they are appropriate for, how much educational value they have, the level of commercialism and more.
Jeno from Bronx, NY, writes:
My son is four. When he uses the computer he often spends about an hour on it, sometimes more. He goes on the Nick Jr., Noggin, PBS KIDS and Sesame Street Web sites. Although I'd rather him use the computer than watch TV, I'm concerned he may be spending too much time on it. Should I be concerned about this?
I think spending an hour or so on the sites you mention is fine. Any more than an hour or two feels like a lot for a four-year-old. There are still so many things he should be learning about offline, like playing with real life friends, touching real objects, playing dress up or learning about nature by going outside and getting dirty.
Just be sure you are sitting near him so he doesn't accidentally end up somewhere else online. I definitely think parental controls are nice to have for kids this young if you can't be sitting with them every minute. Also, remember that some commercial sites like Nick Jr. have advertisements on them (some of which are meant for you). So be prepared if he asks, "What's that?" and points to the Clorox ad.
Christine from Novato, CA, writes:
How can I tell if my daughter has a MySpace account? How can I access it?
The best thing you can do is ask. If she's under 14, she shouldn't have one (if she does, she's lying about her age). Many parents can tell when their child is lying. If she's 14 or older, you might have to ease into the conversation in a different way. You could tell her you were reading about MySpace in an article and are really curious about it. Ask if she can show it to you so you can understand how it works. Have her help you create a profile. While you're doing this together ask her if she has one, how long she has had it, and whether it's public or private. You'll be able to sense whether she's going to let you see it or not.
I think if she's only 14 or 15, you have the right to insist on her either showing it to you periodically or letting you be her friend (tell her you'll use a cool image that's not your photo and different name on your profile so her friends won't know). If she really doesn't want to show you and you don't want to push her into a confrontation, use the opportunity to talk about safety, how she shouldn't post too much personal information, and let her know that if her profile is public, anyone can find it. You can tell her that "anyone" includes future employers, college recruiters, teachers or her friends' parents. She should be sure there is nothing on there she wouldn't want these adults to see, such as sexy photos, photos of her doing anything that would prevent someone from hiring her, comments with tons of profanity, etc.).
Of course you could also just go onto MySpace and search her name, first, last, or any alias you think she may have come up with and see if you find her. But I like the first approach better. It's less stealthy and more open and honest. It's much harder to have that dialogue when it starts with, "I found your MySpace profile and you are in big trouble."