“Mom, can we check our email?”
I get that question quite a bit these days. With three daughters, one an actual teen, and the other two hovering on the brink of their teenage years, I probably should have seen this coming.
If there’s one thing that’s true about most girls–and most women–it’s that we like to talk. My oldest was expressing herself in short sentences of two or three words by the time her baby sister was born, even though my oldest was only thirteen months old herself at the time; there was just so much to say, and so many new and interesting ways to say it. By the time their youngest sister had joined us and had become verbal herself, my husband would marvel at our daughters’ capacity to maintain “chatter mode” for all of their waking hours, and sometimes, for the two who shared a room, well into the night.
It’s not surprising that many trend forecasters see women easily outpacing men in their use of social networking sites. On some sites, women already outnumber men; and while men tend to be the early adopters of all new technology, it’s the women who seem drawn in overwhelming numbers to those sites that promise new and better ways to chat, converse, interact, gab and gossip.
As more and more moms embrace the promise of easy conversation these sites offer, though, there’s a chance that we’ll forget who’s watching over our shoulder, and what our adoption of these technologies might mean for our kids.
My girls share an email account. It’s tied to one of mine, and they “check” it when I bring up my mail. I’m right there, so if spam appears, I delete it before they can see it. We moved away from a web-based mail site because the site showed ads of dubious quality to the side of the emails; even though I still supervised their use of the site, I got tired of the advertisements and the need to close them down before my girls could read an email or send one back to a friend or a family member.
They’re not allowed to hand out their email address randomly, either. Aside from family members only one set of friends has it. But even with these restrictions, they find the whole concept of sending email to be a fascinating one; they’re always asking if they can compose a note to an aunt, a cousin or two, or one of their friends, and nothing is more exciting to them than receiving an electronic note, complete with cute “stationery” backgrounds and sprinkled liberally with happy emoticons, in reply.
I know that part of the reason for the excitement is that they see me use the computer to write, to blog, to send email, to communicate. We set examples for our children by our actions, whether we mean to or not–but that’s something to bear in mind, when we consider whether or not a new Internet tool or technology is going to be useful, or a mere distraction.
Thus far, I’ve chosen not to use social networking sites. I don’t really have any need for them, and spend enough time online anyway without needing to share short bursts of information with random people about what I might be doing at any given moment. But even though I’ve chosen not to use social networking websites myself, my girls are still aware of them; they’ve heard them talked about, and know what they’re for. And they’re inclined to view these sites as alluring, enticing, and “cool,” even with no experience of them whatsoever. That sense of allure would probably increase if I used social networking sites, and would escalate my girls' desire to open accounts themselves: after all, if Mom can use these sites, surely there’s no harm or danger in them, right?
But social networking sites are a lot more “open” than a small circle of email correspondents can ever be. Even if a parent is very strict about whom their child can “friend,” for instance, you can’t control the “friend’s” content–nor can you stop your children from seeing, in many cases, what their “friends’ friends” are posting. If your child “friends” a close real-life playmate or classmate whom you trust, but that friend has a “friend” who is allowed to “friend” anyone who asks (and since when is “friend” a verb, anyway?), then your child ends up being able to see and read posts and “tweets” you never imagined they could, with content that might range from the vulgar to the alarming.
And the watchful vigilance parents try to achieve in regard to their children’s Internet use quickly evaporates at the speed of posts and “tweets” that may disappear long before Mom ever sees them. If someone becomes abusive, annoying, or even threatening it may take a while before parents ever know there’s a problem.
Sometimes the problems are serious, too. Here in Texas this month a fourteen-year-old girl used a pair of scissors to stab another girl at school, over mean comments left on a MySpace page over spring break. Adults can get annoyed or angry enough with each other online–but adults tend to have a sense of proportion which teens and children lack. It may cause hurt, irritation, or even indifference when an adult finds out a Facebook or Twitter contact wants to be removed from his or her circle of friends or followers; it can be devastating beyond reason–literally–for a child or teenager to have this happen, especially if the “friend” is trying to be mean.
As a parent, and especially as a mom of young girls, I worry about many of the dangers our culture poses to our children’s innocence, self-esteem, and well-being. There are so many voices calling to them from the culture, presenting them with words and images that are hyper-sexualised, that reinforce standards and stereotypes that can shatter a girl’s image of herself, that fill their minds with consumer values and prey upon their real, normal needs in that insidious way we call “marketing.” With all of those voices already surrounding them, I think the last think they need are more voices reinforcing all of these things and exploiting their desire to communicate in a way that is “cool” and new–but potentially damaging.
The last thing they need is more chatter. And right now, setting a good example for them means avoiding these sites, and all this chatter, myself, too.
Erin Manning is a writer from Fort Worth, Texas. She blogs at And Sometimes Tea.