Today is Safer Internet Day, as well as being part of Children’s Mental Health week. I spend a lot of time worrying about my children on social media, even though they don’t have accounts. Unfortunately for them, the work I do makes that less likely for them, not more.
I’m a big fan of social media, and the power it has to inform, persuade and raise awareness. However I’m acutely aware of its downsides, particularly where children and young people are concerned.
I know every generation must say this, but it just seems to radically different to our own childhoods, where we could go for days without hearing from our friends and often that involved their Dad answering the phone first. The nearest we got to inappropriate content was that Judy Blume book and looking up rude words in the dictionary.
First the good stuff. The internet is a great thing for children. They have a world of knowledge at their finger tips, they can discover any information about any subject on earth. The only limitation is their imagination. Sadly they seem to spend it all looking at videos of people playing video games and opening boxes but hey – who am I to argue.
It also allows them to keep in touch with friends in a way not possible before. That feeling of connection is important and shouldn’t be overestimated – even if it can’t replace actual human contact.
Social Media isn’t going away. I still meet people who don’t use Facebook, or have no idea what Instagram is. You don’t need to be a complete master or use it all the time – but you need to have a basic understanding of what they all do. If you’re going to teach your children to look after themselves in the world, then you had better learn what that world is. This is not the Wild West, this is their reality and it should be yours.
Hopefully your children feel that they can talk to you about things that bother them, but you do need to have at least a vague idea of what they’re talking about if they do.
You teach your children to ride a bike, eat in restaurants, road safety – so why on earth would you leave them to work this out on their own.
I see three main issues with kids online, and it’s worth discussing each one.
- Anxiety and self-esteem
This is the major worry for most parents, although not necessarily the biggest real danger. However, make sure your children are aware how to keep themselves safe. Online grooming is terrifying and I don’t want to complacently say that it could never happen in my family, but the more aware everyone is, the safer everyone will be.
First rule, for goodness sake obey the age restrictions.
Action For Children have produced this handy guide.
I know so many children who have Instagram Accounts, Facebook and Snapchat accounts when they shouldn’t. The age restrictions are there for a reason. Even if some of their friends have them, don’t feel that they all do. They don’t. Certainly don’t let your children have accounts if you don’t know how they work.
I mean I know I used to get served in a pub from an early age but hypocrisy serves me well here.
My children are under 13 so don’t have any social media accounts, but that doesn’t mean I can rest easy.
My eldest son has an ipad, which includes imessenger and he has an email account. we have a laptop, they watch Youtube and play on the X Box. I should confess that my son thinks he has his own Youtube channel but actually it’s mine.
The internet contains a world of unsuitable content – so make sure you have set up your parental controls directly from your router. We have BT Internet and their filters are good – although we came a cropper a while ago when I found my son had looked up what something meant far sooner than I thought he should! However we have also set filters on Youtube and the Xbox. Make sure you know how to do this, because you do need to!
Our rules are
- Ipads and laptops can only be used downstairs in family rooms.
- If you don’t know what something means, ask. Don’t google!
- I will check your internet history and will know if it’s been cleared, that you’ve looked at something you shouldn’t.
- Don’t befriend anyone you don’t know, and you can make sure that it’s definitely them.
- Don’t share personal information
- If something doesn’t feel right, then ask.
- Know how privacy settings work and how to block people
When they are older, I will set their accounts up and set their privacy settings for them. I also want to know their passwords. That doesn’t mean I will read their messages or abuse that trust though.
For me, this is a bigger concern than grooming. Both my child being bullied and being the bully. Again, you teach them to behave in restaurants and talk to grown ups, teach them how to behave online. When we were younger, if there was bullying it tended to be contained either in school, or the journey home. Today, there is often no escape for them.
At the moment, our discussions are
- Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t be happy everyone reading.
- Be careful about who you allow into group messages and who you don’t. Excluding people can be hurtful.
- Don’t send pictures of yourself, or ask people to send pictures to you that you either aren’t happy with or would mind your headmaster seeing. CLOTHES PLEASE!
- Be kind to everyone as if they were in front of you.
- Be respectful
Self-esteem and anxiety
Which brings me to the last issue. I can’t fathom how you begin to grow up in a world where you can document your every move, where all your mistakes are registered for eternity and you get to see and edited version of everyone else’s life.
There is no surprise that anxiety and mental health issues among young people are increasing. The fear of missing out (that’s FOMO to you and me) along with a warped view of reality and the increased pressure to be fabulous all contribute and you need to offset it somehow.
I don’t have answers for this one – but you can do your best.
- Tell your children that life isn’t perfect. Show them how photoshopping works, talk to them about how noone’s life is all that it is cracked up to be.
- Encourage them to take photographs of other interesting things. I’ve already told my son that when he’s 13, he can only have an Instagram account if he promises that the majority of photos will not be of himself.
- TURN IT OFF. I’m a fine one to talk, but encourage them to know that you don’t have to answer every message. You can put it down and that the world won’t end if you do something else for a while.
- Have actual friends. Social Media is great for staying connected but it doesn’t replace face to face contact – encourage your children to leave the house or have friends over as often as possible.
Also, think about your own social media use. Your children are not there as content. By all means share their triumphs, your love and your pride, but don’t post content that could embarrass them – even if they were only three at the time. Teenagers are embarrassed about EVERYTHING, and normally embarrassing photos are reserved for the best man’s speech.
After all that, really the only way to keep your children safe is to educate yourself up and talk to them, and make them feel that they can talk to you. You can’t protect them from it, so you may as well hop on board.
If you are still a little clueless, then ask me about my parenting sessions. In them we go through all the social media sites, how they work, what they do, what your children think they do, and how to make them as safe as possible.