As the ever-evolving culture that is the Internet continues to take over every aspect of human interaction, I am continually amazed at the ways that our lives have been improved by such technology. During a recent lecture at George Fox University on the Social Psychology of the Internet, we discussed the double-edged sword that instant connectivity has become. Many people who have unique interests or feel marginalized by their community may find ways to feel included and accepted by interacting with various sites. Some sites, such as was published by the Autism Society (www.autism-society.org) have provided outstanding resources for public awareness. Such sites help people who are part of certain groups, particularly minorities, to feel less alien. I am writing this post on an online site to provide some insight from my doctoral studies to the public, with the hope that something I write will make a difference for someone. Yet, the internet also provides a darker side of accessibility. People who wish to connect with less-than-prosocial groups, such as those that support racism, are able to do so with the click of a mouse. A George Fox professor mentioned that such sites may provide people with a false sense of majority that allows them to feel validated in their beliefs.
Although such dark corners of the internet may exist, censorship and inoculation may only do so much. Additionally, other aspects of online interaction may be considered just as harmful. For example, as kids log into sites such as Facebook and other social media realms, they may make themselves vulnerable to criticism and negative social appraisal. Many of us can remember moments in our childhood where we witnessed, if not were victim to, some sort of bullying. The infinitely accessible online world amplifies such moments, as there is a certain degree of anonymity that is associated with online messaging. Kids, and adults, can do anything from make a snide comment on a profile picture to creating an entire webpage or blog that is meant to harm someone. Although this power can also be used for good, the repercussions of the harm often result in long-lasting socioemotional trauma (see Snakenborg, Acker, and Gamble, 2011).
For parents, I recommend the following:
1) Find out what online circles your child is involved in, and be attuned to how their involvement may be affecting other areas of their life. It might be better to be a little nosy than to be ignorant.
2) If you are unfamiliar with certain online circles, do some research and find out more. For example, if your 12 year old is on Tinder, you might want to find out what Tinder is all about (spoiler alert, he/she should probably not be on Tinder). Often, websites may indicate a certain age-range of appropriateness that can help guide your analysis.
3) Keep your computer in an area that is viewable by the rest of the family, preferably near the kitchen or living room. Respect their privacy, and be attentive to how they choose to use the internet.
4) If your kid is using websites that you find unacceptable, take time to educate them about why you find such use harmful. This may feel awkward or anxiety-provoking, but simply telling them “no” and restricting access will only make things seem more special or desirable.