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Keeping teens off social networks? Easier said than done!

By Nicola Freeman

A New Jersey school principal made headlines last week when he sent an e-mail to parents of all 700 students at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J. strongly urging them to take their kids off Facebook, MySpace and other online social networks.

In explaining his reasons in the e-mail, the principal, Anthony Orsini, wrote:

"The threat to your son or daughter from online adult predators is insignificant compared to the damage that children at this age constantly and repeatedly do to one another through social networking sites or through text and picture messaging.
It is not hyperbole for me to write that the pain caused by social networking sites is beyond significant - it is psychologically detrimental and we will find out it will have significant long term effects, as well as all the horrible social effects it already creates."

In follow-up interviews Mr. Orsini said that social networking sites have become a tool for children to psychological harm each other, often anonymously. "Rumors used to be some mean girl says something in the hall, but now it's out there for the whole world to look at," he told CBS Channel 2 in New York.

Mr. Orsini reported that reaction to the e-mail from parents has been generally positive. He certainly has the support of his staff. Meredith Wearly, the school's guidance counselor, said about 75 percent of her day is spent dealing with student social networking issues.

However, others think that Mr. Orsini's e-mail is unrealistic and that social networks are being blamed for a lack of vigilance and guidance on the part of parents.

Mr. Orsini's e-mail unwittingly highlights the problems associated with trying to enforce a ban on social networks. He recounted the story of three of his students who told their parents that they had closed their accounts but the school found the accounts were still active. Also, a number of parents who were informed by the school that their children were posting inappropriate content, had denied that their kids had ever had an account in the first place!

And even if you block social networks on the family computer, they will still be accessible through smartphones, iPod touches, gaming consoles and other connected devices.

Mr. Orsini claims that "there is absolutely, positively no reason for any middle school student to be part of a social networking site" and he's probably right. Facebook and MySpace explicitly exclude under-13s from membership of their networks and it's unlikely that too many 13-year-olds have the maturity or the experience to manage an account without running across problems.

However, trying to keep 700 middle-school students off social networks is like trying to stop them talking in the hallways. Texting and chatting online is what today's kids do; it's how they communicate and it's how they live their lives. Banning social networks will just drive the problem underground, causing kids to lie and go behind the backs of their parents.

Instead of trying to turn back the tide of technology, schools – and more importantly parents – should be teaching middle-school students and even younger kids how to use the Internet and social networks responsibly.

We teach our kids proper behavior and how to be respectful in all other areas of their lives. Why are we so afraid to teach those same disciplines when it comes to their online worlds?

Do you think it's a good idea to ban middle school students from social networks? Is it a workable proposition? Share your thoughts with The Online Mom!

Comment by HL, posted 7/29/2011, 2:53 PM:

Social media can be as dangerous as driving, drinking and having sex -- things that are prohibited for young people to engage in before a certain age. Unfortunately social media is a new technology, there are no rules or restrictions and probably won't be until enough young people get hurt and a saddened mother comes forward to ask this country to put some guidelines on it. But considering that Grand Auto Theft is considered "freedom of speech, I somehow doubt it will happen, though it should.
Comment by Antonio King, posted 5/5/2010, 4:41 PM:

Well said. Unfortunately, I can't post my entire thoughts due to the character restriction, but I agree completely.Instead of blaming Facebook, take proactive and plausible approaches that maintain reality, not promote unfeasible ideas such as completely removing access to Facebook from a generation that thrives on technology (doesn't sound like he took into account the other thousands of ways to gain access). The perfect cliche comes to mind here. Much like "Guns don't kill people; people kill people," the same applies to this social media-is-to-blame case: Facebook doesn't cyberbully teens; teens cyberbully teens.
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