Advice to parents: Give your kids their (My)space

Expert says online communities can be allies, not threats.

— -- Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University-Dominguez Hills, has long studied "the Net generation," the first to have grown up with the Internet, not to mention cellphones. In Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation (Palgrave Macmillan), he helps parents understand social networks. His advice: Talk to your kids, learn the technology and don't panic. USA TODAY's Janet Kornblum spoke with the author.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: For kids — what I'm calling the Net generation, anybody born after 1980 — technology is not a tool. It just is. It's part of their life. They think of it differently.

Q: How has technology influenced this generation?

A: They do things in a more abbreviated fashion. They IM (instant-message) with multiple people at the same time. They can't uni-task. They do everything on their own. They're very self-motivated.

Q: How does it specifically affect their relationships?

A: They make commitments to people online they don't even know. But their strongest commitment is to their family. They see more of the world as a social world. So social problems are very important to them.

Q: Do you think the Internet is fundamentally changing kids?

A: This world encourages us to multitask. I think it encourages kids to be much less patient. More terse.

Q: Why are social networks so popular?

A: When I grew up (a baby boomer), our social life was outside. We hung out. The next generation spent time at the mall. This generation spends time at home — connected. Kids have to be social. It's all part of the preteen and teen years and young adult years. MySpace happened to come around at the right time when you had a whole generation of kids who needed a place to be social.

Q: Weigh the positives and the negatives of social networking.

A: Because they have a combination of people they know face-to-face in the real world and people they don't, (those of the Net generation) get a lot of chances to bounce ideas and to test out things on a social network that they probably wouldn't do face-to-face.

I hear that a lot from kids — that they feel much more comfortable saying things online than they ever would off-line. That's a real positive because they get to test out their world. They get to figure out who they are.

Q: So how should parents think about social networks?

A: You can certainly use your parenting skills to help them get the most out of MySpace — to not be addicted, to not be bullied and to know what to do when you're bullied. But taking (MySpace) away from them is really like restricting going to the mall with their friends or going to school and talking to their friends. It's tantamount to making them a pariah.

Q: Can you give some solid parenting tips?

A: Talk to your kids. If the computer is in their rooms — which is not a good idea — walk in and ask them what they are doing. Ask them what's new, what they like about it — don't be judgmental. Tell them you want to learn. Kids love rules, believe it or not. Kids need limits.

They're defining a new generational attitude. But they're not new teenagers. We know what adolescents do.

You have to learn what potential problems there might be, and then, like a good, authoritative parent, you discuss those with your kids. You know there might be sexual predators out there. And you have to know: 'Well, does anyone say anything nasty to you? How do you handle that?'

Q: Compare the Internet and social networking to television.

A: Every waking minute of every day, they are interacting with some sort of technological medium, except perhaps when they're in school, and even then, kids are texting from their pockets. They're wearing iPods all day. It's just a different world for them. The impact of television on society took years and years and years. And we had a chance to adapt to it.

The kinds of tools these kids are using are vast. Nobody heard of MySpace five years ago. Nobody heard of an iPod five years ago. Nobody heard of instant messaging.

This is a rapidly changing technological world and the kids are the first ones to adapt technology.

Q: Are parents keeping up?

A: Parents have a total misconception about what their kids are doing online.

They don't know how much time they're spending. They don't have the breadth of what's happening to the kids online. They think the kids are being attacked by predators all the time. They are way over-concerned about the technology that the kids are using.

Everything is so different from year to year. No wonder the parents are afraid.

They don't have to know everything, but they've got to see what MySpace is about. They've got to understand this whole thing of kids text-messaging all day long. They have to understand what it means to have kids plugged into their iPod all day long.