Kids and Social Media

Are you the type of parent who can’t wait to create their child’s first email address? Or do you hope that by the time the baby’s old enough to use email, that whole silly Internet fad will blow over? In short, when should you worry about your child’s online presence, and how early is too early?

YOUR CHILD'S EMAIL ADDRESS

As soon as you’ve named your baby, you can go ahead and secure an email address for them. Some people create more than one, for example, firstname.surname@gmail.com for official use, as well as SillyNickname@gmail.com for junk mail and  anonymous use on social media.

Of course, if you have your own domain (that’s the bit after the special character @, like CaruthersFamily.com), then there’s no rush, because nobody else can reserve that address.

Keep in mind that, legally, you have to be 13 years or older to have a Google or Hotmail account, so it may pay to check with your Internet Provider before you set up. Here’s what Yahoo says on their website: “When a child under age 13 attempts to register with Yahoo!, we ask the child to have a parent or guardian create a Yahoo! Family Account to obtain parental permission.”

Alternatively, you can see whether you can set up your children’s email addresses within your own email account. Gmail, for example, has a plus-addressing feature that allows you to create secondary addresses (that are part of your account) for the kids to use. This gives the children their own email addresses but allows the parents to keep an eye on the emails the children send and receive, because it’s all part of the parents’ inbox.

EMAIL SAFETY

Once your child has an email account set up, the next hurdle to overcome – for some parents at least – is letting them use it.

As soon as they learn to read and write, children will want to communicate by email with family members and friends. However, the electronic inbox potentially contains dangers like spam messages (some of them age-inappropriate), invitations to online dating and gambling sites, scams (“Congratulations! You’ve won a million dollars!), and even messages from bullies or online predators.

So, what’s the solution? You can set your child’s inbox spam filters to only let through emails from people on the approved contact list, or you can monitor your child’s email activity (typically a good idea for younger children). In addition to the secondary addresses described above, here are two examples of child-friendly email accounts that are fully controlled by the parents:

Of course, you should also teach the children to recognise spam.

KIDS BLOGGING

Most children want to write blogs for social reasons. In itself, blogging is a bit like writing a public diary, an open journal for people to read. Anything that gets kids into writing is good. It’s important for young people to have a platform on which they can express their opinions, discuss issues and tailor their wordsmith creativity.

Sadly, blogging can expose the blogger to harsh comments, anonymous hate attacks for their views and messages from potential predators. Discuss your concerns so that the children understand why disclosing personal information that can reveal their identity is not sensible.

If possible, choose a blogging site that allows your child’s blog to be private and password-protected so only trusted persons (family and friends) can view it. Most blogging sites make the primary blog public, but allow you to create an additional blog that can be password-protected or read only by invitation.

Make the blogging a shared experience. Get into a habit of discussing the blog posts and the comments with your child, even if just to say: “I liked what you wrote about abandoned pets.” With younger children, it might make sense to screen what the child writes before the contents is published online.

A few points for the children to keep in mind when blogging:

  • Consider those who might be reading your blog entry.
  • Be respectful of other people’s ideas.
  • Your blog is a public space. Make sure you’re proud of everything you’ve written. Even a password-protected blog can be hacked and made available for everybody to see.

BEYOND BLOGGING

Tumblr is an interesting concept. It’s a visual blog for sharing stuff you find interesting. Tumblelogs are refreshing, fun and highly creative. Here is a simple analogy: if normal blogs are journals of words, tumblelogs are scrapbooks of photos and captions. Again, the terms of service stipulate that you have to be age 13+ to use it.

FACEBOOK FOR KIDS

Togetherville, a child-friendly alternative to Facebook, closed down in March 2012. To fill the gap, Facebook is working to allow kids under the age of 13 to create an account on the site, but is hasn’t happened yet.

Many parents disregard this legal requirement and allow their children to interact on Facebook with other children. That causes all sorts of interesting etiquette questions:

  • Should your child be Facebook friends with their teachers or your friends?
  • What about your aunt, who’s a lovely lady, but who sometimes posts updates using language meant for adult eyes?
  • What if someone you or your child doesn’t like very much, someone who perhaps has a bit of a reputation as a bully, sends your child a request to be friends on Facebook?

TWITTER FOR KIDS

Yep, you guessed it. 13 or older to have a Twitter account. But take heart: there’s something called Scuttlepad that’s like Twitter for children. If you want the kids
to taste the social media in a safe environment, Scuttlepad is the answer. Designed for children, this network allows them to connect with other kids and share their activities.

To post their status updates, the child has to select from a list of available words. While this may sound restrictive and counter-creative, the word lists were put together to encourage good sentence construction and word choice. They also ensure the language remains age-appropriate. Parents have to approve photo uploads and friend requests. Ideal for children aged 6- to 11-years, it’s free and doesn’t connect to adult social media sites.

ONLINE COMMON SENSE

  • When creating your child’s email address: “If there are any checkboxes for free offers, newsletters, or anything like that make sure you uncheck them or they will flood you with junk email. Anything that asks if you want your email address listed in a directory or anything like that should also be unchecked. This keeps your email address private! Which is what you want, otherwise you are going to be constantly receiving tons of garbage.” - advice from kids-online.net/learn
  • When setting up a blog, avoid using your child’s personal details, such as their real name, date of birth, name of their school, geographic location.
  • This may sound paranoid, but don’t publish photos in which the child’s face is clearly visible or with landmarks that might reveal where they live.
  • Teach your child to pick a screen name that doesn’t reveal their age or gender. BenTen is not a good online nickname.
  • childrenonline.org offers innovative and comprehensive workshops on Internet safety (cyber safety) and online education to students, parents, faculty and administrators.
Yvonne Eve Walus is an education specialist, a senior consultant to Creative Learning Systems in Auckland, and a mother of two primary school children.
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