Jewish Journal


January 18, 2007

Online social scene clicks with younger set


Sharon Duke Estroff

Sharon Duke Estroff

OK, admit it. You've breathed a guilty sigh of relief that your kids are still too young to have been bitten by the MySpace bug. You've relished the reprieve (if only temporary) from the mounting worries of parents of virtual-social-networking-obsessed middle and high schoolers.

But just because your child is still a few years short of acne and raging hormones doesn't mean he or she isn't involved with online social networking. In fact, tens of millions of elementary-age kids (6-years-old and up) have posted personal pages on Web sites that are -- for all intents and purposes -- mini-MySpace.coms.

On the wildly popular ClubPenguin.com for example, kids create online penguin personas (complete with screen names and personal igloos), then waddle around subzero chat rooms socializing with other cool penguin personas. On the equally happening Millsberry.com (as in General Mills cereals), kids create cartoon-like "buddies" and custom-built homes, and then meander around town socializing with Millsberry's bottomless bowlful of citizens.

On NeoPets.com (a site that Com Networks reports had 3.58 million visitors during September 2006, alone), kids create virtual pets and communicate with one another via their furry-cyberfriends, while ClubLego.com members build Lego self-representations and then schmooze to their heart's content about the plastic interlocking cubes.

Inching closer to prime-time MySpace in terms of logistics and curb appeal, MyNick.com (as in Nickelodeon) has kids posting personal pages and profiles, sending Nick Mail to one another, and rocking out to Nickelodeon signature bands (i.e., The Naked Brothers) via exclusive MyNick podcasts. In all fairness, the forces behind the majority of child-oriented social networking Web sites make an honest effort (although some admittedly more than others) toward protecting their young members from the dangers associated with their grown-up counterparts.

The vast majority of these sites require parental consent before activating a child's account, forbid the uploading of personal photos and use content filters to sift out inappropriate material. Some employ live adult monitors to ensure conversation taking place within their domain remains on the up and up. A select few even go so far as to limit kids' communication to drop-down menus of preapproved words and phrases.

Save the few Web sites with supertight security (most of which are considered too babyish by tweens and up), worry resounds throughout kiddie cybersocial world. While parental e-mail consent may be required before activating a child's registration, there's no way for a Web site to determine whether the e-mailed permission is indeed linked to a parent.

Filters can be excellent deterrents to kids making rude or profane remarks to other kids, but an older, more seasoned filter dodger could feasibly circumvent them.

Furthermore, like their grown-up counterparts, child-oriented social networking Web sites are habit forming. Many grade-schoolers spend hours every afternoon and weekend conversing with cyberpals in these online forums. Also addicting to kids is the gaming element incorporated into many of these sites.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the online socialization craze currently sweeping elementary schoolyards, however, is its unknown long-term impact.

In-the-flesh play dates replaced with virtual play dates; human facial expression replaced with penguin facial expressions. Such an abrupt shift in the traditional childhood experience is bound to have social, emotional and physical ramifications. And only time will tell exactly what they are.

What do we do in the meantime? We

  1. take a deep breath
  2. accept that cybersocializing is part of being a millennial kid
  3. impose serious limitations on the amount of time our children can spend hanging out on these Web sites (30 minutes a day, after homework and chores, max!)
  4. pledge to provide our kids with the same boundaries, supervision and guidance in the virtual social world as we would in the real one.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four on the Web at sharonestroff.com. Her first book, "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids" (Broadway Books) will be published in 2007.

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