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Teach kids to be kind in online world

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By Mari-Jane Williams
The Washington Post
Erin Mantz lets her two boys, Max, 11, and Zack, 8, use Instagram to keep up with their friends. She sees it as a normal part of social life for today's tweens.
"I hate to say, 'Everybody is doing it, so it's OK,' but if I block them from using it, I feel like it would be like when I was 11, my mom saying I couldn't talk to my friends on the phone," Mantz said.
"It's how they are social. I don't think I can stand in the way of that unless I see something inappropriate. Then all bets are off."
Both boys use their first names only as their user names. Max shares photos of things he has bought, Mantz said, or sayings that he likes. To Mantz, it seems pretty harmless.
Facebook and Twitter, however, are off-limits. Mantz considers those sites more appropriate for adults who use them for professional networking and information gathering. She also said none of their peers use them.
Facebook -- with its requirement that users be at least 13 -- and Twitter are indeed geared toward older teenagers and adults, according to experts. Gwenn O'Keeffe, a pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said parents should follow those restrictions because children younger than 13 are not developmentally ready for the nuances of the social interactions on those sites.
Social media are so interwoven with kids' lives, though, that to bar them from using the sites at all is not realistic. In fact, if parents don't let their children use social media, they are not equipping them with the skills they need to function in the digital world, according to Caroline Knorr, parenting editor of Common Sense Media.
But using social media can come at a cost when kids use it to bully or tease classmates, so it's important to teach children that they are interacting with real people online, O'Keeffe said.
"We live in a digital world," O'Keeffe said. "You have to start incorporating lessons about this as soon as they show interest, as young as you can go. It's just like teaching your child not to put his finger in a light socket."
Parents can use the chat functions on sites such as Webkinz, which is geared toward children ages 6 to 13, as a way to teach kids to be kind in the online world, O'Keeffe said. (Common Sense Media has rated several social media sites for tweens on its website.)
When children start a Webkinz account, they give themselves a user name that is associated with their virtual pet. They can invite their friends' "pets" to play games or chat with them on the site.
Webkinz has two levels of chats. With KinzChat, designed for younger children, users can choose from preset messages and cannot enter their own text.
KinzChat Plus allows children ages 10 and older to type messages, but the system uses word monitors to screen for personal information or inappropriate content.
"Teach them to treat each other well, to be a good friend, to not bully," O'Keeffe said. "That's how to treat people when you're using technology, and when you're not using technology. Include both sides of that coin all the time."

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