Ask parents what they worry about when their girls spend time online, and predators are at the top of everyone’s list. Immediate threats to our kids’ welfare are obviously every parent’s primary concern. But there is more to worry about online than a predatory attack—and there are fewer controls in place protecting our daughters from these more subtle threats. Several experts recently revealed their biggest worries about girls using the internet. Here are the 5 biggies:
1. Online predators
The internet can encourage a false sense of trust and connection. There are many technology tools available to help filter questionable content, but parent education and monitoring is a must.
Online games for girls often center around dolls or avatars. Many exploit girls’ desire to be more grown up, offering blatantly sexualized fashion and even lifestyle choices. One example: the popular gaming site MissBimbo.com, where girls can compete to become “the coolest, hottest and most intelligent Bimbo!” Girls can even purchase breast implants for their Bimbos. “Miss Bimbo is suitable for girls of any age, and some features are restricted for young children.” Apparently the ability to get breast implants is not on the restricted list: when I registered as a 7 year-old, I was able to access that option.
The internet lets girls interact without accountability or the challenge of face-to-face conflict. The result, sometimes, is no-holds-barred bullying. This can be dangerous for girls’ self esteem, and in extreme cases, even their welfare. A number of recent teen suicides have followed vicious online bullying campaigns.
4. Body Image Warping
Not only is the internet rife with the same narrow beauty ideals as the rest of the media world—and a wide range of sexually explicit images inappropriate for children—it also presents a unique opportunity for discourse that can encourage unhealthy habits. Pro-eating disorder websites are particularly concerning as girls can share negative body image messages and techniques. Eating disorders are known to thrive where distorted ideas about body and beauty are rampant.
5. Manipulative Marketing
Limited regulation, interactivity and the blurry line between content and promotions makes internet marketing to young people particularly concerning. A new bill hopes to legislate parameters for marketing to kids and teens online. According to the NYTimes: “The Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011 would require companies to explain the type of information being collected and how that information was being used and would require parental consent before the collection of a child’s information. Advertisers would also be prohibited from aiming at children and teens online.” The bill would supplant the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which been limiting the information sites can collect from children since 1998.
With so many possible risks, it’s easy to feel terrified by the internet. But it’s also the reality of the world we live in. And in some ways, it’s simply a different version of the risks our kids face in the real world. I am glad to see that attention is being called to these stealth risks to self esteem and security as well as the more obvious threats we’ve been hearing about for years. If girls feel bad about themselves, they are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors, which are threats to their current and future well-being.
I’m still at the beginning of this challenge as my kids are not quite at independent internet age—or at least aren’t at the age where I’m allowing them to pursue their interests online. One thing we’ve done with an eye toward these issues is install a family computer with a large monitor in full view of most of the public areas of our apartment. If my kids are doing something on screen, I want to know about it. But as mobile devices get more popular, this may be a harder protection to implement. How do you deal with internet anxiety with your kids?
See the ABC News video where Dr. Michelle Borba and other experts give specific sites to avoid and tips on how to keep your kids safe:
photo: Mike Licht. NotionsCapital.com/flickr
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