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How Can Adults Improve Social Networking Sites for Kids?

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I was recently interviewed by a local high school student named Julian for his research project about the impact of social network sites on society. I always enjoy being interviewed by teens and end up learning something in the process. Julian asked a question that I have been thinking about since we spoke: "What can adults do to improve social network sites for kids?" In 2008 social network sites grew up. Online communities, like Facebook, made the leap from being a hang out for teens and college students to a legitimate place for adults to communicate. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the rate of adults who participate in social network sites quadrupled from 8% in 2005 to 35% in 2008. Now that so many of us have arrived in this digital meeting place, Julian's question makes sense. After all, adults assume the responsibility of organizing ways to bring positive social values to our offline gathering places (parks, churches, ball fields, etc.) and it seems logical that we would want to do the same in our online communities.

Indeed, there are things that can be done immediately to reach out to kids on social network sites.

Here is my best shot at answering Julian's question:

1. Safety First:
Living digitally in 2010 may mean compromising our privacy. Thus, there are many good reasons for us to question what we lose when our personal information gets digitized. Despite the threat, many of us are sloppy about online privacy. This is one of those modeling things -- we can't expect kids to care about privacy if we don't take the lead. We can start by making our passwords more secure and, even more importantly, spending a few minutes understanding the privacy settings of social network sites. (Hints: Go into the your Facebook security settings and look for the word "Everyone." By everyone they do mean everyone. Also, keep in mind how big a group "Friends of Friends" can be in a social network.)

2. Know your Audience:
Having hundreds of friends on social network sites makes it impossible to keep them all in mind. Imagine everyone on a friend list sitting in an auditorium, it would look something like this: husband or wife, ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, college friend, great aunt, cousin's kid, acquaintance from work, etc. Not being able to look into the actual faces makes it more difficult to remember that we are speaking to a very diverse group. Again, learn those privacy settings and limit who can read what you post - or make your comments more PG.

3. Kid Spaces/Adult Spaces:
The dinner table after the kids leave the room has historically been adult time, while kids go outside to play and have kid time. That's how it used to be. But now that we are all hanging out in the same place online, it is harder to tell the grown up conversations from the kid conversations. This requires adults to be more aware of what they post. It's no longer as simple as just waiting until the plates have been cleared from the table. This is especially true for 18-20-something siblings and cousins who have friended a younger family member. Not all adults will have the same ideas about conversations kids should and should not be a part of, but when it comes to digital sharing, awareness that everyone has a seat at the table is the key.

4. Friend with intention:
Chances are you are already have a couple of kids on your friend list. This often happens quickly and without much thought. "Oh you're on Facebook? Me too. I'll friend you." Hit the accept invitation button and it's done. Next time, slow it down a little bit. Ask some basic questions: What if I see something that makes me uncomfortable on your page? Should I come to you first or talk to your parents? What if you see something on my page that makes you uncomfortable? Will it embarrass you if I post to your page? After a talk like this, friending might end up to not be the best option. It's better to have the conversation up front and adults should feel comfortable to have a personal policy that they don't friend anyone under a certain age.

5. Respect their privacy:
Just because a kid's Facebook profile feels like public information, it does not give you the right to share that information publicly. Try not to gossip about what you see. When in doubt, go to the kid and ask if what was posted on Facebook is something that can be shared. Treat your access to a child's life on Facebook as a privilege and one that deserves respect. If you see something that disturbs you, be up front about it with the kid first and then take necessary action to protect their safety.

6. Show some empathy:
One of the biggest worries of adults raised in the analog is era is that relying on technology for social interaction will cause us to lose our ability for face-to-face connection. Empathy may be one such casualty. It is a key to communication and can be easily communicated online or offline. Make a point of being more deliberate with letting others know when you feel for their ups and downs. For kids keep it lighter, go ahead and say something nice to a kid. Occasionally, stop by their profile to say hello. Let them know that it is good to be able to "bump into them" or that you like something they are doing.

7. Be an unofficial mentor:
If social networks are going to be safe places for kids, adults are going to have to be more present and it's not going to work if it is just parents watching over kids to control their online activity. Social networks have to become more open to adults who are interested in pointing kids in a positive direction and who take an interest in their development. Assign your child a digital mentor. It should be someone who shows maturity and good judgment. It could be an older cousin, someone in your community who has a similar interest to your child or a friend of the family your child thinks is cool.

8. Take it offline:
Adults who want kids to understand the benefits of living a life where there is balance between online and offline activities have an opportunity to demonstrate this on social network sites. Post pictures and write descriptions of outdoor activities and use social network sites to get the word out about offline activities that are happening in the community.

9: Be a good friend:
Make the digital social network more than just a place to peek in on the life of an old crush or to monitor a child's Facebook use. Use these tools to bring back the more wholesome definition of Friend. Reach out to a wider and more diverse group of people. Take the time to learn new things about people through their posts and the friends they keep. Enjoy the fact that technology makes distance less of a factor in keeping up connections between family and friends who live far away. Share more about yourself, use social networks to help kids see that the adults in their lives are multidemensional people that can be reached out to in many different ways.

10. Add your own:
I'm curious to hear other ideas about ways to make the digital social world a better place for kids. Don't stop there, use these tools to get the word out that there are some simple things that adults can do to keep kids safer, to contribute in a positive way to their development and allows everyone to share in the excitement of digital social networks.

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