Most adults define their community in geographical terms: the people who live nearby. But thanks to the Internet, many teens and some preteens also live in virtual communities that have no geographical boundaries. For better or worse, the Internet has opened them up to the world.
Nowhere is this more profound than the recent trend of "spaces" or "blogging." Short for "Web log," a "blog" is a Web page maintained by an individual, organization or business for the purpose of communicating with others. There are millions of blogs out there and, according to researchers at Georgetown University, more than half of them are run by people between 13 and 19.
Another term, "spaces," is used to describe services like MySpace, LiveJournal, Xanga and MSN Spaces that provide people with free tools to create their own online communities or blogs.
Kids are using these blogs for all sorts of things, ranging from describing their homework assignments to exploring their hobbies to exposing their innermost thoughts. Some kids post photos on their blogs or put up links to their favorite music or movies.
There are a lot of positive aspects to blogging. For one thing, it helps teens develop language and communications skills, and becoming an Internet publisher can greatly enhance a teenager's sense of self-esteem. Blogs offer young people not only a sounding board for what's on their mind, but also feedback and validation from others, who can comment on what they write using a feedback mechanism on the blog itself.
Blogs can also be used as learning tools. There are some teachers and schools, for example, that encourage students to use blogging tools to discuss their assignments.
Like so many other positive things on the Internet, there is also a dark side to blogs, spaces and other online social networking tools. Because they are generally open forums where people can post just about anything, they are also subject to misuse. Some children and teens, for example, have put personal information on blogs that make it too easy for a stranger to locate them, call them on the phone or send them e-mail.
Others have posted photos, which can make it easier for a stranger to identify them. There are cases where students have also posted photos with inappropriate poses and clothing, or lack thereof. Some reference or even celebrate the use of drugs, alcohol or harmful diets.
Tragically, there have even been blogs that encourage suicide.
If your child or teen has a blog, ideally it would be good if he or she told you the blog's Web address so you could monitor what was being posted and be sure your child isn't posting any personal information or anything else that could be harmful. But the truth is that many kids who have blogs are reluctant to tell their parents because they use the blogs to express themselves in ways that they may not want to share with their parents.
This is a tough issue. On one hand, parents have a right (some would say obligation) to stay on top of what their kids are doing, especially when it comes to a publicly accessible Internet site. On the other hand -- right or wrong -- it's hardly unusual for kids to want to keep some secrets from their parents, especially when it comes to emotional issues which are so often explored in teen blogs.
Though this doesn't always work, parents can attempt to find if their child has a blog by using the blogging service's search feature to search for the child's e-mail address, first and last name, nicknames, school name or any other word that you think your child may have used in a profile.
At the very least, you should have a discussion with your child. Ask if they have a blog, and ask how they are using it and if you can get them to share the Web address. But, regardless of what they say, it's still a good idea to talk with them about the safe and unsafe use of blogs.
Some blogging services offer safety and privacy tips for their members as well as tools to limit who can visit member blogs. Ask your kids if they've read the service's tips and policies and whether they're using any available privacy features. If not, ask them why.
Think carefully about whether or not you should try to prohibit them from having a blog at all. Some teens might go ahead and maintain a blog even if their parents object. But, whatever you do, be sure to talk with them about how they can protect their safety and privacy.
Remind your kids that giving out personal information can be dangerous and that whatever they post on their blog can follow them for the rest of their lives. A photo or a piece of writing that may seem funny or cool or just a wee bit edgy to a 16-year-old could be very embarrassing a few years later when that same young person is trying to get a job or establish a relationship.
I have plenty more resources on blog safety at my new site, www.blogsafety.com.
By Larry Magid