I had an epiphany this morning as I talked to my daughter about her internet usage. It's a big one, friends, so buckle your seatbelts.
Being an extroverted girl, she has a desire to communicate and interact. This part of the story is not so revolutionary. Many of us have girls who love to chat with various friends for hours on end. Many of us are those girls. Two years ago, her social drug of choice was a website called Club Penguin. It is an animated site filled with cute games involving little penguins. Each user creates a penguin and the funny little birds can play together or hang out in chat rooms where they interact verbally by selecting from a list of pre-approved phrases.
From Club Penguin, she moved to Pixie Hollow. Similar in format, users customize little fairies and they get to do 'fairy things' together. The graphics on this site felt a little more grown-up, yet remained very much a little girl world. Both of these early forays into the junior social media world were approved, albeit somewhat grudgingly, because their privacy policies seemed fairly sound and there wasn't much way for a child's identity to be discovered by unsavory stalkers and predators.
This last year, Ellie has discovered and quickly formed an addiction to a site called Howrse, a horse-themed virtual reality world in which users buy, sell, care for, show and discuss horses--not an unusual passion for girls of this age. A local friend of hers introduced her to this site and I was slower about showing concern and disapproval because I'd become accustomed to this type of thing. Over time, however, I began to notice that this was definitely something different than Club Penguin or Pixie Hollow.
This site is more of a Neopets or Webkins meets MySpace, where caring for one's herd of horses eventually becomes secondary to decorating and personalizing profile pages with all sorts of flashy animations and images gathered from the internet, quotes, music, links to external sites, etc. In addition, the chat feature is wide open to the users' own dialogue and can be personal between only two 'friends' or in more of an open forum format. Acquaintances are made in the process of transactions: buying, selling or checking out the bloodline of one's virtual horses.
The more she has played on the site, the more concerned I've become about the inherent security risks I'm allowing in my home. I find her chatting with someone on the site and ask who it is, only to receive a shrug, "Oh, just someone I bought a horse from." My frown is met with, "Don't worry, Mom, I checked out her profile and she is from a Christian homeschool family." These are supposed to be the magic words that comfort me somehow, the words that remove all fear and doubt about my eleven year old chatting it up with a stranger online. Seeing my eyes narrow, she adds, "It's not like I'm giving away any personal information."
Then, this morning at breakfast, it all came down. She had big, exciting news. She had met someone on Howrse who is in the cast of the new Hunger Games movie, a film she is waiting for with a great deal of impatience. They had chatted for a long time about it and it's true! She really is an actress from the movie! Poor Ellie's father, brother and mother all began to fire questions at her at once regarding the veracity of this claim. She defended her new 'friend.'
But her profile picture is of the actress standing in front of the movie poster in Hollywood!
But when I asked her about what it was like to be working on the set of the movie, she gave lots of details that probably only the real person would know!
But she has photos from The Hunger Games on her profile!
We launched into a lengthy discussion about how easy it is for a predator to assume a false identity, using just the information that would make him/her look trustworthy and desirable to the desired audience. We discussed how celebrities generally attempt to conceal their identities, rather than gather a crowd of fans around them. Gradually, her face fell. She wanted it to be true. We talked about the fact that, even if it is true, that she really is a movie star who happens to hang out on Howrse in her spare time, we don't place extra value on friendships with certain people simply because those people are celebrities. We get to know the person for who he/she is--not what he/she does for a living.
We began to re-evaluate her presence on Howrse. Her face fell even more. She liked meeting people there. More than anything, she just wanted to find friends.
And then it hit me.
(This is the epiphany part.)
The privacy-protected, choose-a-user-name-that-is-not-your-own, reveal-nothing-about-yourself world of junior social media is completely backwards! We are teaching our kids to form 'friendships' with complete strangers! We don't condone this in the adult world. We don't open the spam emails that are obviously from someone we don't know. We don't follow through with the requests to transfer money to a long-lost relative in Nigeria we've never heard of so that we can collect what was designated to us in their last will and testament. If we hear a story that sounds a little fishy, we look it up on Snopes. We only accept Facebook friends requests from people we already know in real life, or at least have met through a mutual acquaintance. If my teenage son receives a friend request from a person he doesn't know, he has been taught to delete it. The internet is too scary of a place to go galavanting around with strangers, but when it comes to children's sites, we say just the opposite--only use websites where you and everyone else using it can be completely anonymous; it's okay to become any stranger's friend, as long as you don't reveal anything about yourself.
This is crazy.
First of all, that is not a life skill we should be teaching. As older teens and adults, we choose friends BECAUSE we have gotten to know the person well and enjoy his or her company, not simply because he or she has a clever assumed name and likes to play the same game. Second, if what our kids long for is relationships, where is the fun and satisfaction in a bunch of superficial faux-friendships that are based on next to nothing--intended to make sure we don't actually get to know each other too well?
As I began to see the error of my ways and the real problem at hand--the fact that my daughter wants to form lots of significant communicative friendships with other girls, but is too young to use Facebook--I felt a solution bubbling to the surface. I have hinted at it on Facebook already today, and I will write about it in more detail tomorrow. This little novella is enough for today.
For the 'more detail' promised in the subsequent post, click here.