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Family Room



To a pair of curious Australian girls, the open storm drain was simply an invitation to explore. Danger never crossed their minds. Yet as the 12-year-old and her 10-year-old companion wandered the dank underground tunnels, they became lost in an ever-darkening maze echoing with vacant drips and splashes. They needed help. Fortunately, one tween had a cell phone. But rather than call the Australian equivalent of 911, they updated their Facebook pages with news of their plight. Eventually, a friend logged onto the social networking site, read their story and sent help. Tragedy averted.

Despite the happy ending, however, the children's methods have some experts concerned. "For these kids," said Terry Flew, a professor of media and communications at Queensland University of Technology, "being on Facebook is just such a pervasive part of their lives that it seems the first line of response if they need to communicate a message to others."

Parents on this side of the Pacific should take note, since 70 percent of American teens have a social networking profile, typically on Facebook. How substantial a role does it play in how they communicate? Moms and dads can monitor online content, but we may have a harder time seeing how social networking sites are impacting children at a deeper level.

A growing body of research suggests that Facebook and sites like it can retard the development of genuine relational skills. Dr. Susan Greenfield, a synaptic pharmacologist at the University of Oxford, has done extensive research on the Internet's effects on brain development. While online conversations are seamless, usually witty, detached and devoid of tone, real-life talk requires a sensitivity to voice, pause, facial expressions and even occasional awkwardness.

Greenfield says of youths' countless hours spent instant-messaging their peers, "It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations. … I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitized and easier screen dialogues."

Sue Palmer, a teacher and the author of the book Toxic Childhood, agrees: "We are seeing children's brain development damaged because they don't engage in the [face-to-face] activity they have engaged in for millennia."

It's easy to see how this disassociation can occur. While Facebook encourages people to connect (even in storm drains way down under) their connections are often broad and easily broken. It's common for teens to have hundreds of online "friends." Consequently, the site often supports connectivity over genuine community, and mere connectivity can decrease intimacy and our understanding of what true friendship is.

Rather than banning kids from Facebook and preventing them from learning to navigate the online world, parents can help them negotiate the Internet and learn about friendship. As Palmer adds, "I'm not against technology and computers. But before [youth] start social networking, they need to learn to make real relationships with people."

Consider monitoring your children's computer time beyond homework. Talk with them about online relationships and what they mean. Encourage face-to-face interaction, good manners, conversations and eye contact with people of all ages and backgrounds. Doing so can help them bridge the gap between experiencing mere association and loving, flesh-and-blood community. It could also train them to use more appropriate tools than Facebook should they find themselves ankle-deep in trouble.

Published March 2010