Virtual Lives: Your Child's Secret High-Tech World

There's a another world out there and your child is living in it. To help you sort it all out we've put together a quick guide to your child's cyber world and virtual friends. This is another in our series of articles exploring the new terrain and unprecedented pressures of parenting today. By helping you make sense of what's happening in your children's world, we hope you'll feel more comfortable and confident in your efforts to raise happy, well-adjusted kids. - The Editors

By Anne Chappell Belden

At 15, Heather Simon* is beautiful and academically gifted. Her mother says Heather doesn't drink or take drugs, and has never had a boyfriend. Well, not one who actually stood in the same room, anyway. But she has had quite a few virtual boyfriends, all of whom she met through her computer - via instant messaging (IM) and her personal profile on

"Why is she talking to someone in Arizona?" her mother, Sue Simon,* asks, referring to one of Heather's online relationships. "You read her messages, and they say they love each other and they've never even seen each other face to face."

Even more disconcerting to Sue, however, is that Heather's MySpace profile includes her photograph and personal information, such as the name of her San Jose high school and the fact that she is a cheerleader. At her mother's urging, Heather marked the Web site private, so that only "friends" with permission can view it.

"But she has 500 so-called 'friends' on MySpace," Sue says.

On a recent trip to the mall, a teenage boy recognized Heather from her MySpace profile. "She thought it was funny," Sue says. "I said, 'That's scary!'"

Nearly one-third of young people say they either talk on the phone, instant message, watch TV, listen to music or surf the Web for fun "most of the time" while they're doing homework.

- Kaiser Family Foundation study

Heather spends three hours a day online. When not on her computer, she's text-messaging friends on her cell phone. Sometimes, her mom says, she's on the computer and text messaging at the same time.

"She would die without it," Sue says. "It's a battle every single day with her over her phone and the computer."

Conflicts like this occur every day in homes across America, as tech-savvy kids spend more and more time in virtual worlds, communicating with friends, friends of friends and even total strangers through instant messaging, blogs, social networking sites like, computer gaming sites and cell phones. Nearly 87 percent of U.S. teens ages 12 to 18 use the Internet, half of them going online daily, according to a 2005 Pew Internet & American Life Project study on teens and technology.

That alone makes many parents anxious. They worry - understandably - about their children's safety and privacy online. But many parents also wonder whether their kids' face-to-face social skills, academic achievement and physical activity suffer as a result of their "virtual lives." (Learn more, read the Technology of Childhood)

"We didn't have a childhood online. This is a very alien experience. So we don't know how to guide our children as they go into a world that wasn't part of our childhood experience," says Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and author of the forthcoming book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Intersect.

There's no doubt that the Internet has its share of security risks, and that parents need to know what their kids are doing online. But parents might be surprised to learn that spending time in the virtual world isn't necessarily putting kids at risk socially, physically or even academically. To fully understand this, media experts say parents need to get involved in their children's high-tech activities - from gaming to blogging and IM'ing. In other words, as the saying goes, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." And that means carving out some time to do so.

A Generation Gap

"We didn't have a childhood online. This is a very alien experience. So we don't know how to guide our children as they go into a world that wasn't part of our childhood experience." - Henry Jenkins, Director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT

Known as Generation M - the media generation - kids ages 8 to 18 spend 44.5 hours each week - the equivalent of a full-time job, plus overtime - with media of one kind or another. A 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation study examining media use among third- through 12th-graders revealed that these kids actually cram 8.5 hours of media content into 6.5 hours of time daily by "multitasking." Teens don't just do two things at once, they do four or five and insist that they can pay attention to all of it.

Such media multitasking is a skill of the future, Jenkins says, and Generation M is learning to shift focus and make snap decisions on multiple pieces of information, a process that often overwhelms their parents' generation.

Unlike their parents, who were passive recipients of media, today's teens and tweens are active content creators, designing their own Web sites, posting blogs, creating digital images, even customizing popular video games by learning how to "hack" the programming code. This generation will also likely develop superior information searching and collaboration skills.

"Teenage girls would be petrified if you read their diary, yet they are now posting online stuff that is much more personal. The belief is that their mother won't see that. Clearly kids need guidance."

- Jeffrey Cole, Director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC

Today's kids "play in information," Jenkins says. "They are acquiring skills they are going to use for the rest of their lives. The negative is that they might not be acquiring some of the experiences we had as children that parents expect to be part of the American childhood."

Sacrificing Social Skills?

Indeed, some observers warn that immersion in the digital world interferes with the way children develop healthy relationships, both with each other and - because computer screen time occurs primarily indoors - with nature.

"Obviously today's children are going to have to be very adept with technology," says Joan Almon, head of the Alliance for Children, an organization of educators, doctors and psychiatrists who oppose the emphasis on computers in early childhood and elementary education. "But adept with technology doesn't mean immersing them so much when they are young that they don't develop the capacities that are a basic part of human life: knowing how to express yourself, knowing how to relate to others, and knowing how to relate to and care for the earth."

Almon also worries about the effects of wireless communication on family life. While the technology makes it easier to stay in touch with family that lives far away, "it's getting in the way of the family that is right next to you, whether it is at the dinner table or in the car for a long trip."

The same technology may also keep parents from knowing important people in their children's lives.

"Parents are saying that through IM'ing, cell phones, voice mail and email, they don't know who their kids are talking to. It's harder to be a parent," says Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California.

Kids typically spend 6.5 hours a day with media (TV, computers, listening to music, reading). They spend just over two hours interacting with their parents, another two hours with their friends, and about 90 minutes exercising or participating in sports.
- Kaiser Family Foundation study

But Cole dismisses the notion that virtual friendships hinder kids from engaging in face-to-face relationships. Research has shown that although teens spend considerable time IM'ing and text messaging, they are not disappearing into virtual cocoons. "They actually spend just as much face-to-face time with their friends," he says. "They often use these other methods to set up face-to-face time."

Recent studies also show that kids who go online report feeling less alienated and less depressed than their offline peers. This is apparently also true for adults. A newly released study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that adult internet communication "is not destroying relationships or causing people to be anti-social. To the contrary, the Internet is enabling people to maintain existing ties, often to strengthen them, and at times to forge new ties."

Still, Almon and others contend that virtual relationships are simple and one-dimensional; they don't prepare children for real relationships, which are complex, engaging and messy. She worries that some children and teens - especially shy ones - may use online socializing to avoid the difficulties of face-to-face contact.

"We're letting our youngsters use technology as a great escape," she says.

About half of kids and teens (53 percent) say their parents don't impose any rules on them regarding their use of TV, video games, music or computers. Only 23 percent of parents restrict computer use and 25 percent use parental controls or filters on their computer.
- Kaiser Family Foundation study

In the virtual world, however, the setting for a relationship can be as complex as the relationship itself. Researchers have found that many teens and tweens actually favor online relationships over face-to-face contact. Online, these kids feel they can be themselves, unencumbered by peer-enforced dress codes, attitudes and styles. Online, they don't need to worry about their appearance and they can freely express thoughts and feelings without worrying about the pitfalls of being judged in person.

On the other hand, online kids can just as easily falsify their beliefs, personalities and other aspects of their lives to deliberately mislead others - even if just for the fun of it.

The Bottom Line

IM'ing, blogs and social networking sites like are all the rage today, but who knows what the rapidly changing technology will bring tomorrow?

"It's not about the technology. It's about how it is used," Jenkins says.

Parents' job, he says, is to help kids figure out a constructive relationship with media technologies so that they can make rational decisions about what activities they want to engage in, how they present themselves, who to trust and what is or isn't ethical.

"In my view," he concludes, "the benefits outweigh the risks. But you have to go into it with your eyes open."

* Names changed to protect the identity of the teenager.

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Online Resources:

Alliance for Children - Offers information cautioning parents about children's immersion in too much technology.

Children's Online Privacy Protection Act - Provides details on laws preventing children under age 13 from signing up for anything online without permission.

Kaiser Family Foundation - Features studies on children's Internet use and other media topics.

Get Net Wise - Provides online safety tips and information on computer filtering and monitoring software.

National Institute on Media and the Family - Offers a newsletter, links and tips for parents on guiding children's media use.

Pew Internet & American Life Project - Search on "teens and technology" for recent reports.