Real Friends vs Virtual Friends

image courtesy of annisat via
Do your kids like to play games online?  Have they come across sites that give them an opportunity to make "friends" and chat?  We've been there, too.  Hannah, in particular, has had the tendency to want to accept all these friend requests.  After all, what is wrong with making new friends, even when you can't see them?

We have had to lead her to understand that making "friends" like this is not always bad, but it's not always the best thing.  The danger of making (and even sustaining) friendships online can be put into one of these categories:  physical harm, emotional escape, and relational disconnect.

Physical Harm.  I think this is the primary concern for most parents when it comes to internet safety.  The principle to remember and to communicate to our children is that we never really know who is on the other side of the computer.  Is it another child, or an adult predator?  Do they want to be friends, or steal your identity?  I don't think we need to fill our kids with fear, but with wisdom to make good choices.  There are tons of resources out there on this topic, so I won't try to list a lot here.  But here are a couple of links for Keeping Kids Safe Online and for Internet Safety Software.

Emotional Escape.  Especially for teens and preteens, the pressures of life can seem overwhelming.  As parents, let us not minimize or dismiss what they are going through.  (I always say that I would not go back to middle school for a million dollars.)  Escaping into a world of avatars, chat rooms, fantastical or romantic heroics, and world domination can be so enticing, rather than the real world of hormones, tests, chores, and bullies.  An article I read recently reminded me that parents must take control.  While it is commonplace nowadays for teens to spend hours online and send hundreds of texts every day, I am struck that one 12th-grader "says he sometimes wishes his parents would force him to quit playing and study, because he finds it hard to quit when given the choice." 

Relational Disconnect.  Hannah, who is in 4th grade, is entering into the phase in life where friendships become much more meaningful to her.  Of course, it was my wife who pointed this out to me last year, and is helping me to understand what this stage is life.  This may be more true for girls, but relationships are important for all people -- adults and children, male and female.  What we have explained to Hannah regarding online relationships ("friends," "chatting," etc) is that she needs to be pouring her time and energy into building real relationships.  We all have a limited amount of time and emotional energy, and both of these are required to connect with others in a meaningful way.  While technology can be a tool to facilitate the building and maintenance of relationships, it can also be a hindrance to true community. 

Do you have any other recommended articles and resources for internet safety, especially for children?

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  1. Well said! I'm probably TOO connected, but with some things I do (i.e. photograph), it's necessary. But there's definitely a balance in there that needs to be found and stuck to. Here's an article on a family that unplugged for six months. Pretty fascinating!

  2. Thanks, Sabrina. Yeah, I was actually working on a follow up post to this, more in relation to us old folks. I'm not trashing the internet at all, but I totally agree with the concept of needing balance.