Every time I open my browser I’m hit with yet another case of social media harming kids and teenagers. The TV and papers are full of examples of how terribly wrong things can go when kids take the plunge into the world of social media. Headlines scream about the 200,000 people expected to crash a 16-year-old’s birthday party thanks to a Facebook invite gone viral. Or how about the video of the bullied schoolboy who finally snapped and slam dunked his aggressor to the ground in a sickening, but let’s face it, inspiring piece of self defense.
The examples are endless, and the media would have parents scrambling to disconnect their home internet and lock their kids in cotton wool-lined boxes. But is banishment from the world wide web really the answer? Let’s face it, the internet, and social media, are here to stay. At some point your kids are going to go online and make their way in the digital world, in the same way they’ll eventually make their way in the real world without you. So will restricting their access to sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and so on really help them?
I believe the answer is a resounding NO. Any parent will tell you, the moment you try to stop your kids from doing something is the moment they will work out how to do it without you knowing about it. And with mobile phones now providing access to social networks for free, you’re basically facing a losing battle if you think you can ban your kids from such sites.
So what can you do? I believe the answer lies in education and vigilance. You need to educate your kids in how to use social media in a positive, educational, and empowering way. Then you need to remain vigilant that their social media activity isn’t causing them harm.
Here’s a few tips on how to ensure your kids stay safe while online:
- Start with talking about social networking and why your child wants to join in. Find out what type of sites they want to join then check these sites for age restrictions. (For the record, you must be over 13 and in full-time study to join Facebook, so there’s a starting point).
- Once you’ve agreed on a site, or sites, have a thorough look at the types of profiles and content within to see if you think they are suitable. If so, help your child with setting up their profiles, privacy settings, inviting friends and so on.
- Go for the highest privacy settings. All sites have varying levels of privacy. If your child is under the age of 18, you should set their privacy settings at the highest level possible. This prevents random people gaining access to images, wall posts, video etc. It also ensures that your child has to set permissions, and allow access, rather than simply have their content visible to the whole world. This means they have to think about the content itself.
- Agree on gaining regular access. You’re the parent after all and your kids should respect your wish to check on their profile and content from time to time. Now, you also need to respect your teenager’s right to some privacy, so tread carefully. What you’re looking for is inappropriate content (profanities, bullying, inappropriate images etc), not the usual teenage angst.
- Agree on the length of time your child can be online and active in social networking each day. It can be an exciting place for kids to mix and meet, but like anything, too much of a good thing can become harmful. An hour or two a day tops is plenty, including mobile phones. You don’t want your kids buried in their phones while having dinner, or locked behind bedroom doors into the small hours, any more than you would want them out on the streets. Agree and monitor usage in the same way you would agree on their offline social activity. After all, most of the people they talk to online will be sitting nearby them in class the next day.
- Gain agreement on your definition of appropriate and inappropriate content. Before they begin using social media, you need to explain that whatever they post online can be re-posted, copied, saved and spread by anyone they allow access to that content. Explain too that how they come across online will reflect on them in the real world. A Facebook site full of posts rich in profanity, sexually explicit talk, imagery and sexual/racist humour, harassment of others and generally bad behaviour, is going to stay around long after the heat of the moment in which such content may have been posted. Increasingly, employers look at a candidate’s social media footprint, often in an interview, to draw an impression of the type of person you are. And the Tweeted pic to a boyfriend might seem saucy now, but your daughter may never live down the humiliation if the pic is spread far and wide after a break-up, or even just by a youth bragging to his friends.
- Monitor your child’s demeanor before and after they go online, or while they are texting. If they are becoming increasingly withdrawn, or surly, chances are their online conversations are being harmful to them. It might just be a friendship or relationship going sour. But it also might be that they are the victim of online bullying, and this can be a truly dangerous situation.
- If you suspect something bad is happening, talk to your child and offer your support. Now might be the time to ask to see their profile and read any wall posts. If they refuse, chances are they are either embarrassed or your suspicions are correct.
- Stay engaged with your child’s online activity. Check the browsing history from time to time. If it’s empty, chances are they’re hiding something from you! A Google search every so often will also show up your child’s activity, including new profiles you may not know about, but you may need to do a search on their nicknames, any user names they’ve created and so on. The aim is not to spy on your kids, rather to ensure they’re acting appropriately online.
- Lastly, act fast if you think something harmful is going on. You know your child better than anyone so any marked change in behaviour can be a warning sign. Don’t leave it and hope it’s just a phase they will grow out of. Be engaged and be vigilant.
Obviously, this is a fairly broad guide, and is designed simply to provide you with some starting points. In the end, your intuition and knowledge of your child will serve you best. Some kids will be okay with a degree of intrusion, others won’t. It might not always be easy but in the end the aim is to protect your child from predators, from bullying and from themselves in some cases.
A Google search will provide you with plenty of resources in the event you think your child’s social media usage is becoming problematic but hopefully you will have established clear guidelines and rules that will ensure your child builds a positive and empowering social network.