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Most parents believe children mainly benefit from Facebook, Twitter

Dawn BormannThe Christian Science Monitor

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Parents, it turns out, rarely see Facebook as a danger zone.

A whopping 83 percent of parents think the benefits of their children’s social media use outweigh or at least balance any perceived risks.

In a national survey released by Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, almost three-fourths of parents said social media prepare children for success in a digital society and encourage curiosity and collaboration.

The results surprised researchers at Children’s Mercy given that parents also said they are concerned about child molesters, sexting and cyber bullying.

More than half of the 728 parents surveyed thought social media made their children more open-minded.

Barely two in five parents worried their children’s online activity could breed social isolation and behavioral problems. Roughly the same number was concerned that children’s virtual lives could get in the way of their real-life social skills and friendships.

The expert’s take?

Social media exposure has many benefits, said Children’s Mercy child psychologist Ed Christophersen, but giving children unlimited and unsupervised access is asking for trouble.

“Most of us did some things as adolescents that we don’t want on the front page of The Kansas City Star,” he said. “And yet we kind of assume blindly that our kids won’t.”

Police agree.

“You have a right to demand the password for your children,” Overland Park, Kan., Police spokesman Gary Mason said. “They’re your kids and you should be actively looking at what they put on the Internet.”

There are other ways to give a child freedom, he said.

Of the parents surveyed, 71 percent believe that 13 is the right age to let their children use Facebook. Christophersen said that’s usually the right choice.

“People keep saying ‘what age, what age, what age?’ Well, it depends on the maturity level,” he said. “If you’ve had a kid that has just been a pain, why would you give them unlimited access to the Internet?”

Facebook restricts children younger than 13 from opening an account, although it’s not uncommon for children to fib about their age when signing up.

Once a child has a social media account, Christophersen insists that parents get passwords and join their child’s circle of friends to see posts and pictures.

Social media are not private like a diary, he stressed.

“If your child has a journal, it’s none of your business what the child says in it,” he said. But Facebook and Twitter, he said, aren’t a journal.

Pictures and posts live on the Internet to haunt or humiliate a child forever.

“Parents,” he said, “make the mistake of assuming the Internet is safe until they find out otherwise.”

After decades of work, he’s seen it all. Teenage lovers texting pictures of their genitalia only to wind up in jeopardy of spending their lives on a sexual predator list. He’s talked to angry parents upset about discussions their children had online about sex. Most of the time he ends up counseling the parent to use common sense: Monitor your child.

Many parents don’t know how to navigate social media and trust teenagers to tell them if there is a problem.

“If you do a survey of teenagers they will probably tell you that the car is safe even though it’s the biggest risk to their life and limb,” he said.

Tiffany Lynch, a mother of four in Mission Hills, Kan., has gotten used to her children complaining that life isn’t fair.

Lynch ruled out Facebook for her children until they hit high school. Internet browsing is restricted to G-rated sites and cut off altogether after 9 p.m. and on Sundays. Cell phones cannot charge overnight in the bedroom. That keeps her children from texting in the middle of the night.

“I feel like I’m alone,” she said. “There aren’t many people that have a plan like this in place.”

The former teacher didn’t come to her decisions lightly. Lynch enjoys sharing pictures on Facebook and agrees that there are clear benefits to the site. But she also wonders when children are mature enough to understand the impact of a snarky status update or a mean-spirited Tweet.

Her policy doesn’t go over well with her 13- or 12- year-old, both of whom have friends on Facebook despite the age minimum.

“Call your friends,” she tells them. “Pick up the phone. Invite them over. You don’t need Facebook.”

Parents often falsely assume that schools monitor their child’s social media accounts daily.

“With nearly 29,000 students,” said Olathe, Kan., School District spokeswoman Maggie Kolb, “that would be nearly impossible.”

Parents seeking guidance online often reach out to school officials for help first. Many districts have responded with parent education classes.

In Olathe, a team of experts made about 40 presentations last year about online bullying, integrity and safety.

Olathe Assistant Superintendent Erin Dugan wasn’t surprised to hear parents think the benefits of social media outweigh the risks. Social media have clear upsides. The pitfalls are still being assessed, she said.

“Our biggest message to parents is talk to us, keep us informed, but actively supervise your children,” Dugan said.

Parents have been surprised to learn that school districts are greatly limited in how they can respond to complaints. Often, the offending Tweet or Facebook post happens outside school. The district will get involved if a threat is made that could disrupt or directly impact the school day.

But unkind words? Or malicious posts from classmates?

That’s up to parents. Districts throughout the city also urge parents to report criminal activity directly to police.

For Lynch, the nasty behavior only reinforces her decision.

Advice from pediatricians backs up her policies, but there’s no true guidebook to get her through.

“When you decide to make a stand against something that is against the cultural norm,” she said, “it’s a daily battle.”

 

Advice from Children’s Mercy

Initiate the discussion about social media. Garner their opinions about the news of the day and share your experiences. Don’t shut them down if they talk about negative experiences.

Be a good role model to help them make good decisions.

Create technology-free zones at the dinner table and elsewhere. Have a no-screen policy in a child’s bedroom to promote restorative sleep.

Encourage creativity that doesn’t involve technology. If you want them to go outside on a nice day, suggest a bike ride or walk together.

Don’t rely on children to help you navigate social media so you can’t be tricked later.

Parents should always review their child’s online history, text messages, emails and more. Take away phones or computers if they don’t comply.

Start with limited access to the Internet and make them earn your trust.

Create clear consequences for breaking stipulated rules. Doctors suggest using a signed contract to spell out the rules.