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Social Media for Under-Age Children Can Lead to Unnecessary Social Harm

By Leonie Smith - 4th August 2013

Today I was alerted to this YouTube video doing the rounds on Facebook. It's produced by the Child Exploitation & Online Protection Agency, with the following description: "CEOPs Thinkuknow education programme...helps children to understand what constitutes personal information. The assembly enables children to understand that they need to be just as protective of their personal information online, as they are in the real world. It also directs where to go and what to do if children are worried about any of the issues covered."

 While I do think parents and kids should watch it, as a cyber safety consultant, I have a few concerns, particularly with the message I was left with: it's ok for a 10-year- old to be on a social media site like Facebook as long as they do it safely. The problems with this harm minimisation approach are this:

Parents, your child is only as safe online as their friends are.
While this film sends strong messages to children not to over-share, avoid friending strangers, and make profiles private, even children with the best will in the world are vulnerable to exploitation if their friends' online behaviour is not equally safe.

Children who are under-age on social media still have to rely on their friends to also have strict privacy settings, a small group of real-life friends, and good judgement. Because as soon as one of your child's friends click "Like" or comments on your child's post, it will be reposted to their entire friends list. Let's hope that your child's friends haven't friended any strangers, that your child's friends also protect and hide their friends lists, hide their posts and pictures from the public, and that they don't share your child's posts after making a nasty comment on it, or changing posts or pictures with photoshop type software.

Socialising is hard.
Kids find it hard enough to negotiate the complex social issues in real life, why allow them to be part of adult/teen online communities before they are mature enough to deal with the larger public repercussions of online exposure that social media encourages? Your children will beseech with you how unfair it is that all their friends are online. Ask yourself - is peer group pressure enough of a reason for you to permit this very real risk to their well being?

If you ban them they will hide it and do it anyway!
Understand that I'm not talking about banning them from communicating through the internet or banning technology, I'm suggesting taking it slowly and using software designed for kids, or at least safe for kids. I keep seeing this statement everywhere from well-meaning parents, kids, and other "experts"  "Don't ban it, you'll make it more attractive and they will do it anyway and hide it". So do we let under-age kids drink, swear, hit each other, smoke, have sex and watch porn...because they will only do it anyway?

We need to give kids a bit more credit; some of them actually do have more common sense than we think. If you plan your strategy right, banning children from joining adult/teen social networks doesn't mean they will automatically cheat. As parents, it's our job to help them understand why we give them boundaries, consequences, rewards and guidance.

What does this say about today's parents?
I worry that allowing a child on social media if they are under-age is a reflection of the level of parents' misunderstanding of how social media works. I also worry that it might be more about  the parents' desire for a quiet life, or because they are truly concerned that their child will be left behind or ostracised. If more parents understood the potential for bad exposure online through sharing, and understood that not being on adult/teen social media isn't a real-life social death, then less kids would feel pressured to be on it.

Yes, I'm probably dreaming...
Stay with me here...what if....all the parents at one primary school actually agreed to try something safer for everyone. They unitedly said, "Okay, we are all taking you off Facebook, Kik Messenger and Instagram. We will allow you to use limited SMS, Skype, iChat and perhaps one of the kid safe social media sites." I know...won't be happening any time soon...but I'm dreaming. Then there would be so much less pressure for the kids to use an adult platform. I believe it can be done. Parents can change the rules when they realise that these platforms aren't safe. See my previous post about posting photos online and why there's no assurity of privacy.

The final recommendation?
There are some online messaging apps with no social aspect attached. iChat and Skype, and SMS still works well if kids are on a set pre-paid plan. These are the only two well known and used apps that do not encourage sharing on social media. My recommended apps are still not fail-safe; they still require privacy settings and strict monitoring, but they are much safer than what many children are using. There are also some child safe social media sites that can be found here.

Sites like Facebook, Kik Messenger, Instagram, YouNow and AskFM expose your child to the adult world because they are designed primarily for adults. I could not ever recommend an under-age child  use Facebook or other social media apps. I've witnessed too much harm from innocent content and identity stolen and shared, and the humiliation and exploitation of kids caused by friends betraying friends.

Image from freedigitalphotos.net

 

Editor's note: For a different point of view about children using social media, read this blog on our site, written by a mother who welcomes the insight into her child's life.

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