Still Buzzing, the Under 13 Set
Google Buzz thrust itself on the social scene at a particularly auspicious time. Snow had trapped East Coasters in their homes so kids talked to their friends digitally and watched television (usually at the same time). Those over 13 likely spent their time on Facebook, which now seems like a privacy haven compared to its newest pesky social network comrade, Google Buzz. Kids under 13 discovered that Google Buzz hit their Gmail account. It was, for many, their first social network experience: intoxicating, terrifying, and all theirs.
As many parents know, Facebook and other social network sites welcome anyone 13 and older to make friends and become fans at their site. That leaves kids under 13 (at least ones with watchful parents) with a less dynamic online life. Before last week, my kids and their pals communicated via email and Gmail chats, happy to wait until their 13th birthday when they might get a chance to create profiles and network on Facebook (parent approval pending). Then came the Buzz. As parents busied themselves shoveling or trying to work, kids found their Gmail inboxes transformed into garden of online delights. They could post pictures and videos for their contacts (their contacts’ contacts and their contacts’ contacts) to see, and they gained access to everyone’s email list. Status updates from contacts appeared in an endless stream along with wall-like postings.
Aside from the obvious privacy problems that advocates such as Marc Rotenberg make stunningly clear, see here, another arose, one that has received less press. Those under 13 had, and may continue to have, a powerful taste of social networking that they may be ill-equipped to handle. Online communications have a powerful disinhibiting effect. As a result, people do and say things online that they would never do or say offline. This is particularly tricky for young children who have much emotional intelligence to learn. Although I had only a small sample to watch, my friends tell a resoundingly similar story: kids under 13 got swept into a nasty free for all, a melange of bullying, shaming, and privacy-busting disclosures that would make a more emotionally mature crowd cringe. As the recent story of 15-year old Phoebe Prince’s suicide illustrate and that of Megan Meier, online bullying can escalate into serious harassment, inflicting mental distress so serious as to drive the emotionally vulnerable to suicide.
Google Buzz did parents a favor with its shocking jump into social networking, foisted on Gmail users. Since the snow storm has abated for the moment, parents are now probably paying attention to what is going on with their kids. Hopefully, this turns into a crucial teaching moment for families who need to talk about acting responsibly online, to treat others as ends in themselves, worthy of respect, not as objects that we can shame and demean. I know that our house took that opportunity. So should yours.
Hat Tip: Citron gang, Tea Carnell, and Ray Cha