“Pleeez can I get a phone?”

It was classic.  I had just given a presentation to a group of parents about Instant Messenger and MySpace.  A mother comes up to me and asks “So when do I let my child go online? When are they old enough?” I then look at the sweet 9-year-old boy standing next to her as he looks at me, eyes filled with both eternal embarrassment and that tweenage look of helplessness. He knew my next words could change the course of his young online life.

So, when are they old enough?  Is everyone else REALLY doing it? Well, no matter what your children tell you, they aren’t all doing it.  According to the latest PEW study on adolescents and online behavior, by 6th grade only 60% of kids are online on a regular basis.  Yes, that’s more than half, but that also means roughly 40% of them either aren’t interested or have parents who would rather not have their tweenage children online.  Middle school is when it changes, however.  By 7th grade, 72% of kids are online and by 11th and 12th grade, 94% of teens (in a very large survey sample) report being online. One interesting finding is that girls tend to get online (mostly IM) in 7th grade while boys lag behind, finding IM interesting in 8th and 9th grade.  Other findings, however, suggest that boys get online to play games with one another at an earlier age than girls.

While a majority of kids begin using the internet to communicate with one another in their late tweens and early teens,mostly using IM, kids who use online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace tend to be older.  MySpace requires kids to be at least 14 years old to register.  Clearly kids can lie about their age because there are no polygraph tests given by MySpace, but the statistics also seem to indicate that it is the older kids who are drawn to these public forums.  According to a PEW study on online social networking, only 55% of online teens use sites like Facebook and MySpace. That means almost half of American teens do NOT use these sites.

So, instead of trying to figure out how old a child should be, maybe its best to think about your child’s skills and the specific technologies he or she will be using.  For instance, e-mail, while not so cool for older teens (it’s so 90’s!), is a good first step for younger children.  It is more easily monitored–especially if you use one of the many sites developed specifically for children (see the parent resource page for a listing of sites).  A child who is being introduced to e-mail should have a fairly decent ability to express him or herself using just words.   He or she should also have a good understanding of how a message might be interpreted by their friend.  Because text-based messages are so open to misunderstanding, if a child is too self-centered to think about how something might come across to others, he or she may be more prone to unintentionally hurt or offend a friend online.

A step beyond e-mail based in a kid-friendly website might be a regular e-mail account.  Instant Messenger, the likely next step, requires kids to demonstrate better communication skills as well as more responsibility.  Since you probably can’t (and shouldn’t) read all of the IM conversations, you have to place a certain degree of trust in your child. You need to ask yourself if your child has developed that trust.  Online gaming is also quite popular with boys and also requires a certain amount of discipline and responsibility.  Kids swear ALOT in online games and your child needs to know how to deal with that type of communication.  Finally, sites like MySpace and Facebook should be reserved for young people who have a proven record of trustworthy and mature  behavior.  Kids can gain access to lots of adult things on MySpace.  Young kids who are just getting the hang of living in the fast online lane probably shouldn’t start with one of these social networking sites.

So, next time your kids whine and beg and promise to clean their rooms if only they could go online, consider what skills they bring to the experience.  Hopefully, you will be right there, helping them to build good online habits as they learn to function in an increasing wireless world.

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