Our children are growing up in an age of social media overload, but how can we as parents police it?
The need for parents to be vigilant about internet safety is well known, but as the world of social media is increasingly being accessed by children still in primary school, a whole new list of online issues has arisen.
According to a recent study by Internet Matters, 43% of children aged between 10 and 13 now use social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, and 86% of children aged seven to 11 use some kind of online communication, often without their parents’ knowledge.
Indeed, the NSPCC is urging parents to make online awareness as much a priority as road safety, as their recent survey showed that less that a fifth of parents discussed this vitally important topic with their eight to 13 year olds.
“Parents are the first port of call for a child when it comes to staying safe in real life and this is no different when it comes to their online life,” explains Claire Lilley, head of child safety online at the NSPCC.
“Talking to your child and exploring their online world with them is the best way to keep them safe but it can be hard to keep up to speed with the internet, and some topics can feel more difficult than others.”
Indeed, it can seem like uncharted waters for many mums and dads who may not even have a social media account themselves, let alone know how to navigate the many complex issues around their children’s use.
For example, many adults are unaware that sites like Facebook and Instagram require users to be aged 13 and over. However, these restrictions are easily overcome by any child with a phone or an iPad who can simply enter false information. While this isn’t illegal, it is against the site’s terms and conditions, and if discovered these underage profiles will be deleted.
And it’s not just a tech-savvy few. A recent survey by the BBC’s Newsround found that more than three-quarters of younger children at primary-leaving age were using at least one social media network.
Once on these sites, children are exposed to all images and text posted by adult users all over the world. Around 70 million photos are shared on Instagram every day, many of which will be unsuitable for little eyes.
“While we don’t condone children under the age of 13 using social media due to the breach in those sites’ terms and conditions, we are realistic. We know that kids are curious and will explore the many ways of using the internet, of which this is one,” says Gareth Cort from Childnet International, a non-profit organisation that aims to make the internet a safer place for children.
“They discover social media in different ways. Maybe they see an older sibling or parent using Facebook or hear of their favourite celebrity or footballer posting on Instagram and they want to do the same. Then, of course, they tell their peers about it. But at such a young age they are unaware of the risks and dangers involved.
“It’s essential to access all the security settings, make accounts private and know how to report anything suspicious or abusive,” he adds.
Grooming or contact from strangers is of course every parent’s worst fear surrounding the online world, but it’s not just safety issues and inappropriate content that they need to worry about.
Often the most immediate threat children face comes from bullying and peer pressure.
Childline has seen an 88% increase in counselling about online bullying over the past five years, with calls coming from children as young as seven.
“Talking to your child about how they behave online is absolutely essential,” Cort points out.
“Not only do you need to discuss safety, you also need a constant dialogue about what they post and the implications. They need to think about what they are saying online. Could it be offensive or hurtful? And remind them regularly that if they are unhappy with anything they have read or seen they can tell you about it. Teenagers tend to talk to their peers about their concerns but parents are still the first people a primary school age child will turn to if they are upset or scared.”
But what age should parents allow their child to access social media? According to Rose Bray, a project manager in child online safety at the NSPCC, that is a decision parents have to make themselves.
“You know your own child and you know when they are mature enough to have a phone and use social media,” she advises.
“Explain the risks to your child and make it very clear what they can and can’t access. For example, they can only send messages to friends and must have a private Instagram account so that only followers you approve of can see their posts.
“We have lots of information on the ‘Share Aware’ section of our website, including guides on the most popular sites and apps. It’s a great resource that can really help parents by breaking it all down into straightforward advice. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming and parents can monitor what their children are doing online.”
However there are many who feel that children of this age simply do not have the level of maturity required to cope with social media where self worth is measured in ‘followers’, ‘friends’ or ‘likes’.
“While you can start teaching responsible use of tech now, know that you will not be able to teach the maturity that social media requires,” explains Melanie Hempe, founder of Families Managing Media.
“It does not make your child smarter or more prepared for real life, nor is it necessary for healthy social development,” she continues.
“The longer parents delay access to social media sites, the more time a child will have to mature so that he or she can use technology more wisely as a young adult. Delaying access also places a greater importance on developing personal authentic relationships first.”
Ultimately parents must decide for themselves how and when their child can access social media but, crucially, they must also remember that they always have the right to simply say ‘no’.
Childnet’s top five tips for keeping kids safe on social media
1. Be aware of the terms and conditions. It’s not illegal for a child under the age of 13 to have a social media account but these rules are put in place by sites to protect children.
2. Protect personal information by using privacy settings. Make sure your kids know not to post things such as the name of their school or photos of them next a street sign. Turn off location services so they can’t be pin-pointed.
3. Become their ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ to keep track of what they are posting and who is contacting them.
4. Monitor screen time and set agreements about the amount of time spent online. Agree a time when all devices will be switched off and lead by example.
5. The most important thing is to talk to your child about social media. Explain your concerns and help them understand how to use it positively.