Social Media and Children
Facebook and Twitter may be old news now with millions, if not billions, of active users around the world. They are, of course, a very good way to stay in touch with friends.
But many of the issues about the use of social media by children and young people have not gone away with increasing numbers of users or more familiarity. Instead, they remain active problems that parents and families need to address.
This page explores some of those issues, and explains how you can help your children and teenagers to stay safe on social media.
Children and Social Media
Parents may believe that their children are not using social media, often because of the age limits on various sites (see box).
Unfortunately, not only are most of these age limits not policed by the sites in question, but there is no guarantee that your child has told the truth about their age when signing up.
In other words:
- Any child who has online access could well be (and probably is) using social media sites.
- By the time your child is in their early teens they will almost certainly be registered on at least one site.
As well as the obvious social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, there are also a number of sites designed for younger children, such as Disney’s Club Penguin, which could be classed as ‘social networking’, and which may not have any age limits apart from parental controls.
Age Restrictions on Social Networking Sites
Source: Action for Children
Risks of Social Networking
Social networking carries a number of risks to your children and you. Here is a quick summary of the main ones.
Privacy and security
The biggest risk to your children’s privacy and security is what they themselves disclose online.
Many children are happy to disclose a huge amount of personal information to anyone they consider a friend. This is (usually) fine in real life, although it can lead to problems when friendships fall apart.
Online is a different matter.
When children meet new people, they often go through a process of ‘placing’ each other, just as adults do. Adults tend to ask about jobs, hobbies and the like. Children, including teenagers, ask each other’s ages and schools. In person, when they know they are talking to another child, this is fine. But online, this is exactly the information that you don’t want them to provide.
Quite apart from the potential risks of paedophiles, disclosing personal information means that your child is at risk of identity theft.
Your children need to understand that:
- There is no guarantee that their new ‘friend’ is another child, or telling them the truth; and
- Disclosing personal information such as contact information, or that they are on holiday, has physical security risks for their whole family, and for identity theft.
One particular issue that can arise with teenagers is sharing information about a party, or a weekend when you, their parents, are away. There have been cases of information about teenage parties being shared very widely on social media, leading to gatecrashing and the police being called. It is worth stressing to your teenagers that they really don’t know where information will end up if they share it online.
Wherever you go and whatever you do online leaves behind a ‘digital footprint’. Some of this is involuntary (for example, you probably know that most websites you visit a it leave behind a ‘cookie’ on your computer). Unless you are visiting sites containing illegal content, this is unlikely to be a problem.
The other aspect of your digital footprint, however, is what you create yourself, voluntarily.
It includes, but is not limited to:
- Posts and photos on social media sites;
- Comments on other people’s posts and photos on social media;
- Comments on blogs and other more mainstream internet sites like newspapers and magazines; and
- Posts on online forums.
Prospective employers often scan social media or other internet sites to assess candidates for jobs. It is therefore important that children understand that what has been posted cannot be entirely removed: there will almost always be some trace left. They should always be confident that they would not mind anyone else seeing what they have posted.
Cyberbullying and cyberstalking
Social networks make both cyberbullying (bullying online) and cyberstalking (harassment and stalking via the internet) more possible.
Cyberbullying may be stand-alone or an extension of ‘real world’ bullying, and there is more about it in our page on the subject.
Cyberstalking often arises when a relationship breaks down, or where a friendship has started, and then soured, online.
Both practices are horrible if you are on the receiving end, and it is important to stress that NOBODY asks to be bullied or harassed.Children should be encouraged to report any issues as quickly as possible, and to block the perpetrators’ access to them online.
‘Grooming’ is the gradual exposure of a child to inappropriate content and suggestions, until that begins to feel ‘normal’. In this way, children can be gradually sexualised until they may be coerced into unwanted sexual activity.
Grooming is probably not as big a risk as you would think from some of the media coverage. But it is a concern for anyone whose child is online.
Social networks give adults, whether known or unknown, additional unsupervised access to children, which offers more potential for grooming. It is likely to be more of a problem if your child uses chat rooms or forums, rather than Facebook or Twitter, but it is a possibility.
You should encourage your children to come to you if they see anything that makes them feel uncomfortable online, and to block access to the person who showed it to them.
Unfortunately, the internet is full of content which you would not want your children to see.
Violent and unpleasant pornography may be only a few clicks away. Some sites deliberately use domain names which are similar to sites that children might type, but with slight typos (think mikceymouse.com, for example).
It is, therefore, quite likely that your child may come across age-inappropriate material inadvertently.
It is important that you explain that they may come across pictures or text that is unpleasant. The best way to deal with it is to come and tell you about it straight away.
You can then manage any distress or upset immediately, and also report the site to the police if it shows illegal images (for example, any sexual images involving children).
Self-esteem, self-confidence and social skills
The reason for this is that everyone puts ‘good’ stuff on social media, so it can start to look like everyone else’s life is better. This is particularly an issue for people who already feel a bit vulnerable.
There are also concerns that people who spend too much time online lose (or never develop) the social skills required to get on in ‘real life’. Anecdotal reports suggest that empathy is a particular issue.
These may seem much less important than some of the ‘big ticket’ items described above. They are, however, much more likely to be seen among young people using social media.
Safe Social Media Use
The best way to keep your children safe on social media is to be aware of what they are doing, and keep an eye on their activity. Then, of course, you are available if they have any problems.
It is also important to keep channels of communication open, so that you know what is going on.
For more about safe social media use, continue to our page on Safe Social Networking Tips for Children.