Today, much of our social interaction is happening online. Once derided as "not real", online social interaction is now pervasive and mainstream. Because of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, social networking sites are open to children 13 and older. This includes facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Google plus. Popular specialty sites like Poptropica and Zhu Zhu Pets are open to younger children, and offer the chance to interact socially online in the course of game play.
As they have evolved, online interactions have grown in complexity, with each social network having its own cultural norms and expectations. For a child with social awkwardness, there can be just as many pitfalls and risk of failure as there are new possibilities and opportunities. For example Path suggests that you connect with "only the people you would invite to a dinner party", while Facebook invites you to "share with the world" and twitter is public by default. Increasingly, the lines and boundaries defining the niche of each distinct network blend and shift, but that is all the more reason to remain engaged and up to date.
It is important to avoid the impulse to dive in with both feet to a new network, and instead, watch to absorb and master the preferred ways of connecting and interacting. You can do this with your child. Imagine that you have moved to a new place and you are closely watching your neighbors and listening to their conversations. In this new culture, how do they initiate a friendship? How often is it okay to call or visit? Where is the line between "oversharing" and "openness"? While much research and punditry is focused on internet "safety" for children, I believe that it is important to help kids to engage in the new "eighth continent" of the internet, and instead of policing the technology, support positive behaviors. Focus on making them compentent internet citizens, able to engage and connect successfully.
Here are some good online resources to immerse yourself in digital culture: