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"The family computer can be a very positive influence — when the computer is integrated into the family life. If you keep the computer near the kitchen or wherever you gather, then while your daughter goes online, the whole family is functioning together in the same space, even if they are doing different things. You might be cooking while she is doing online research or IM-ing, but you're all together. The location of the computer matters enormously in what kind of experience a child is having, and also provides an easy way for you to talk together without feeling (on her end) like 'Big Brother' is watching."
Michael Thompson, Ph.D.
Co-author, Mom, They're Teasing Me
Our mobile, interactive world — connected by the Internet and cell phones — provides tremendous opportunities for communication, both positive and negative. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, "Generation M," says that computer and video game use has been steadily increasing for kids aged 8 to18, with kids spending at least an hour a day online (although many girls report it's actually much more than that). And nearly one-third of these kids are multitasking — going online, talking on the phone, and watching TV — while also doing their homework. While much of this activity is fun, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, girls' online safety is becoming an issue. The study reports, for instance, that girls who post their photos online or create their own Web pages on social networking sites are more frequently contacted by strangers.
Fortunately, parents can have an impact on the time girls spend online or texting their friends. You can start by learning about the medium, discussing it with your daughter, and setting responsible limits together. Here are some things to think about for that discussion.
Going online provides opportunities for expression and connection.
There's a lot that's truly valuable in the online world. The Internet offers girls opportunities to become media producers and make their own Web pages, to access and listen to music (and sometimes even to compose it), and to communicate instantly with friends from coast to coast. E-mail and instant messaging (IM) have probably enhanced your ability to connect with others, and they're doing the same for your daughter.
Young girls go online to play — and are taught to consume.
Many Web sites connected to real-world brands encourage kids to return daily to earn points or to care for their online pets. Jane Katch and other experts who analyze the media note that entertainment companies are cashing in by exposing girls to their products throughout their childhoods. Lyn Mikel Brown sees an upside and a downside to these sites. "Web sites like this seem to be age-appropriate and not versions of teen or adult games; they are nonviolent. They can be monitored, and kids can communicate with other kids from around the world or close to home. But the big downside is the marketing -- these sites teach kids to become consumers for life."
Older girls play out personal conflicts electronically.
Girls use text messages, IMs and social networking Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook to communicate with each other and to hash out their conflicts. The virtual world allows girls to communicate without having to look someone in the eye or hear her voice. As a result, girls feel a false sense of confidence and often type things they would never say directly — and conflicts intensify. A recent Pew Internet Study reports that one-third of girls aged 12 to 14 have experienced online harassment, or "cyber-bullying." Cyber-bullying can take the form of a text message, IM or photo posted online — items that prompt rumors and spark online conversations that are hard for girls to live down. "The cyber world has become the new bathroom wall for insults and rumors, and has transformed the landscape of bullying," comments Rachel Simmons. For more information on cyber-bulling see Rachel Simmons' free online guide, Stand Up: What Every Parent Needs to Know about Cyber Bullying (requires free Acrobat Reader).
At the same time, girls can protect each other online.
"This summer I had a girl in my leadership training camp who had been cyber-bullied terribly by kids in her neighborhood," comments Simmons. "When this girl returned home, the bullying continued. Her friends from camp retaliated in her defense, posting supportive 'I love Ruby' messages on her personal Web page. Ruby told me she carried these messages with her to school as armor, to protect herself emotionally from the girls who made fun of her."