In this edition, we look at social networking: how it plays out in the family and the community. The articles below are to start the conversation. We hope they will inspire you to think and discuss this topic more. Perhaps on your Facebook or LinkedIn page.....
The Text Generation
It didn't take long for the teenager texting relentlessly on a cell phone to become a cliché of comedy. Read any of the family-focused cartoons in the daily paper or watch any sitcom and you've seen this character: nose buried in the tiny keyboard, thumbs flying. But for parents in the real world, texting and other forms of social networking such as Facebook or Twitter aren't punch lines. They are another way that teenagers distance themselves from the family while opening themselves up to a sometimes dangerous world. In short, they are another opportunity to examine how we raise our children. But, how concerned should we be?
We talked with a few of our experts at the Village who recommended we first visit the Federal Trade Commission's website for tips to help parents guide their children so they can avoid the pitfalls and dangers of social networking. It is an excellent place to start. We've summarized it in the bullets points below, but you can find it here. Their advice focuses on two basic principles.
- Privacy. Be sure to discuss with your children what privacy means, both so they begin to understand how to protect themselves and so they will understand how to respect others.
- Make sure they know that once something is posted online it is out of their control - forever!
- Help your children understand that bullying online is the same as bullying at school.
- Tell teens to avoid online sex talk.
- Engagement. The Trade Commission reminds parents to stay fully engaged.
- Review information that your children post online.
- Keep the family computer out in the open.
- Sign up for the social networking sites that your children use.
- Review your children's online friends lists.
- Make sure your kids know they can talk to you if they are uncomfortable about how someone is dealing with them online.
Obviously there is a line between monitoring and intruding, and parents need to find that line themselves. The FTC also offers a long list of non-government websites to help parents with social networking.
Parents also should remember that the social networking phenomenon makes perfect sense when the teen years are considered as a developmental stage. A number of psychologists, psychiatrists, and philosophers have divided children's growth into stages. Psychiatrist Erik Erikson spoke of development as a social-emotional process. For him, teenagers were primarily concerned with defining themselves. Adolescence is defined by "trying on" and discarding different roles. What better, easier way to announce your new persona than on your Facebook page?
Indeed, philosopher Jean Piaget, one of the first to define development stages looked at development as a process of learning to organize the world in increasingly complex ways. For Piaget, the teen years correspond with what he called the "formal operational stage." During this stage, teenagers begin to think abstractly and solve problems logically through trial and error. Facebook or MySpace, for example, offers a unique way to find oneself through the process of trial and error as described by Erikson.
In general, the teen years are a period of growing independence, searching for points of reference outside the family. Social networking is just the latest way that young people undertake this important part of growing up. It is natural that Twitter, Facebook, and other tools of social networking become playgrounds for teenagers as they explore the world and their place in it, looking for social norms beyond those of their immediate families.
But that's not to say that parents should be unconcerned or ignore their teens' social networking. While adolescents have been defining themselves throughout history, social networking allows them to do so in front of vast audiences and with feedback from an almost infinite number of resources, not all of them helpful, some downright malevolent. Mistakes can be devastating and hard to live down. Moreover, online social networking sites have become a notorious avenue for sexual predation. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal gained national attention when he put pressure on social networking sites to toughen age and identity verification standards in an effort to curb online predators.
Watching young people so easily master the latest technology, it is easy for parents to feel acutely the generational divide that separates them from their children. However, the underlying behavior is the same today as it was yesterday as it will always be. The cliché texting teen of today is the grandchild of yesterday's bobby soxer talking endlessly on the phone. No doubt there was an equivalent in ancient Rome. Understanding this can help parents teach their children to use the tools of social networking responsibly, so that Twitter, Facebook and the rest remain an enjoyable and creative way to express oneself.
Social Networking: Just How "Social" Is It?
In his much noted book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam uses the decline in participation in bowling leagues as an emblem of the decline of community-focused socializing once common in America. Putnam makes the case that the "social capital," fostered by community activities like bowling leagues is evaporating as Americans spend more time pursuing individual activities. More people may be bowling, he points out, but they are bowling alone.
Putnam marshals an impressive array of statistics to document this trend. The decline in bowling leagues is mirrored by declines in civic organizations, PTAs, community theaters and choral groups, to name a few. Even the family dinner has become the exception, rather than the rule. Putnam argues persuasively that America has lost a great deal as a result. The bowling league was more than a recreational gathering, it was one means of creating social bonds that helped hold communities together.
Since Putnam wrote his book, Twitter, Facebook and the like have become national phenomena. All fall under the general heading of "social networking," leading one to ask: Can Twitter create social capital the way bowling leagues once did?
The Village places great value on social capital. Our mission is focused on community building, and the communities we serve have long suffered from a severe shortage of social capital. In Hartford, an inordinate number of children are raised in homes with a single caregiver. Or by parents so stressed by financial issues that there is little time to build and maintain social networks. A significant number of city residents move frequently, weakening their connection to the community. Poverty underlies many of the ills that plague our city. But there is evidence that the single most important factor in family dysfunction is a lack of social ties.
It is easy to dismiss social networking as just a way for people to further isolate themselves. But there is evidence that the opposite is also true. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Barack Obama's successful run for the White House was his campaign's use of social networking. This innovative tactic helped individuals learn about and donate to Obama, but more importantly it helped bring together people who wanted to volunteer for his campaign: that is, it actually got them out of their houses and together to establish social ties. While those ties grew around a single cause - electing a President - many of the connections, once established, became deeper and more fluid.
Social networking resonates with the Village in a number of ways. It might be a tool for us to help build connections within the community we serve. Clinicians may find Twitter, for example, to be a means of passing on useful information to the families with whom they are working. Or a group of fathers, brought together by our Fatherhood Initiative, may decide that MySpace is a way to share good parenting tips.
The newsletter you are reading right now was sent through one of several available email services designed to help organizations connect to wider audiences. It is itself an example of how the Village has begun to use social networking as a communications tool. We hope that these tools can help us make more people among the general public aware of the good work we are doing. We are hoping that you'll help by forwarding our e-newsletter to a friend or colleague to grow the Village's social network.
Like a bowling league, social networking is what one makes of it. It can be nothing more than a form of recreation, or it can be a tool used by a dynamic community to create ties that bring people together around mutual interests and shared values.
Families and Children in the News
Here are a few articles and opinion pieces about issues, including those discussed above, that the Village deals with everyday. Please note that by clicking the links below, you will leave our website. The Village for Families and Children takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those sites, as we do not exercise editorial or other control over them.
Federal Trade Commission, Facts for Consumers
"Social Networking Sites: A Parent's Guide"
The Harrisburg Patriot-News, Saturday May 2, 2009
"Facebook has become yet another part of 'social status'" by Alicia Thomas
BNET Media, May 2, 2009
"What's Bigger than Email? Social Media (by the numbers)" by David Weir
The New York Times, May 4, 2009
"Should the White House be a Place for Friends?" by Saul Hansell
USA Today, April 27, 2009
"Would-be parents turn to foster kids as adoption costs rise" by Wendy Koch
The Annie E. Casey Foundation
Foundation Calls for Policies that Help Vulnerable Kids, Families, and Communities
HuffingtonPost, May 4, 2009
"Geoffrey Canada Does Whatever It Takes" by Marian Wright Edelman
The Boston Globe, April 27, 2009
"Study shows family arguing leaves a long-lasting imprint on children" by Elizabeth Cooney