Making “Friends” in the Digital Age

Would you give your middle schooler the keys to your car? This question, posed by a police officer, set up the analogy for questioning why parents would allow middle level students to have social media accounts. The presentation took place at a workshop at the New Jersey Middle School Association’s annual state conference, and the police officer who was the primary presenter evinced an amazing understanding of the developmental nature of the middle level child.

The most important goal of youngsters between the ages of 11-14 is to be accepted. The connections they make with their peers have an evolutionary quality because as students age and develop different styles and values, they make – and lose – friends. Though it can be a poignant and painful process, this is a normal part of the process of growing up. And I think it is fair to say that the middle level years are the hardest.

Websites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and many others promote some form of “friending” people, a way of granting access to one’s postings and photographs and personal information. People can often be heard comparing how many “friends” they have. Ironically, these so-called “friends” can be faceless or have a decoy picture. Just as with instant messaging, emailing, and texting, the recipient really may not know the true identity of a “friend.” This is fertile ground for pedophiles and other predators who can con preadolescents into providing private information that will put them at risk. As the officer asked at the workshop, would you open your front door and let anybody in?

If middle level students can be reactive, impulsive, and demonstrate poor judgment in their interactions with their peers in person, imagine the possibilities for being vindictive, mean, or threatening in cyberspace. School and police personnel often have to investigate and address threats of violence and harassment that begin on the internet and end up in the classroom.

One of the biggest threats to the well-being of our students is the idea of “sexting” or adding language of a sexual nature and/or pictures to postings and communications. All a student needs is a cell phone with a camera or a computer in his or her bedroom.

The final analogy offered during the workshop is that you cannot unring a bell. Technology and its tools are here to stay, and our students already live in a digital world. What can you do to help your child remain safe?

  • Do not allow your child to have a computer or cell phone in the bedroom. Computers should be located in spaces where parents can pass by frequently and see what is on the screen.
  • Cell phones should be collected and recharged in YOUR bedroom every night.
  • Do not allow middle school children to have accounts on social networking websites.
  • As your child gets older, insist that you become a “friend” so that you can check in on what’s being posted.
  • Limit and monitor student time with all types of technology.
  • Talk with your children honestly about the dangers associated with technology so that they understand the implications of decisions they may make that they might not be able to “take back.” They need to know that they will be held accountable for what they say or do. And we do not want them to be in a position where they will regret something they did that will be seen and forwarded to literally hundreds of “friends” in record time.

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