Everything's online these days and that's where our kids hang out every day.
Katy Gosset looks at how to keep them safe on social media where not everyone tells the truth.
When Jo’s young son, Sam*, got friended by a bikini-clad babe he ‘thought all his dreams had come true in one go’.
His mother, Jo*, relates that her 14 year old was approached on Facebook by the older girl.
“The photo …was of this absolutely stunningly gorgeous girl jumping off a boat in a bikini into a blue lagoon.”
“That’s not real but, as a mother, I know that.”
Her adolescent son thought otherwise and was soon sharing plenty of information with his new friend.
“This girl was befriended and chatting and asking ‘Where do you live?’ and ‘Who are your friends?’ and ‘What sort of things are you into?’”
Jo told Sam to delete her from his account but the damage was already done.
“It came back to bite us on the bum because we then started getting phone calls in the middle of the night.
“As it turns out, this person was not a 16 year old girl at all.”
But that can be hard for a young boy to work out.
“The people who are trawling the Internet getting information out of kids are just so blimmin’ good at it. It is scary,” Jo said.
She said adults were also frequently ‘scammed’ on the Internet.
“You know, we don’t pick it up, so how can we trust in children to pick it up?”
The answer is to arm them with some practical rules for navigating their online accounts.
Clinical psychologist, Catherine Gallagher, warned children to be wary of anyone asking too many questions.
“What conversations or what questions might you start to get concerned about?”
“Or, actually you get a request from someone you don’t know who suddenly wants to get more and more intimate in terms of what they want to know about you. That’s a flag.”
Restricting the use of devices had its place but, long term, parents were better off preparing their children for the cyber environment, she said.
“We need to teach them how to be critical evaluators of that online world so that they can exist and thrive in this medium.”
This meant having active conversations about the pros and cons of social media and encouraging them to analyse what they saw.
Ms Gallagher said some parents could naturally become anxious about something their children knew more about than they did.
It was, after all, a change from the days when kids had more physical freedom during the day but were kept close to their parents, all watching a single TV, by night.
Now everyone had individual devices and children might be physically present but their minds were often engaged elsewhere.
“They can be sitting right next to us on the couch, all the while communicating with a middle-aged stranger from America.”
“So we kind of have a perceived physical closeness and safety but, because of the device, they have access to the entire world.”
That meant parents needed to keep a close eye on their children’s social activities.
“Know their world and who’s in it and this includes their online world.”
Parents should also follow their children on social platforms, however unpalatable their offspring might find this.
“It is OK, in fact I’d say essential to be a Facebook friend as when a child is learning to be in this world they often need additional scaffolding.
In other words, “The fact that Mum or Dad will see a post is often a good lesson.”
Better yet, parents should ask their children to help them sign up, as a way of gauging their children’s online knowledge and sophistication.
“Then you can start a dialogue and they can be the expert and explain to you, which is a really good way to have insight.”
Ms Gallagher also advised monitoring children’s behaviour in case online interactions started to take a toll.
‘It’s really important to know your child and so, if you see changes in their functioning, check in with them about what possible stresses are in their world.”
Jo was concerned about some of the material she had found online. She devoted a lot of time to monitoring Sam’s account and urging him to remove people he didn’t know.
“It’s actually really scary because there are some really horrible things out there on Instagram and Facebook.”
However, once Sam started high school, it became even harder to track his movements as he had numerous social media accounts.
“The problem is you don’t know who they’re following and who’s following them.”
In some cases her son had more than one account with the same app.
“So long as their friends know what their user name is, they can have a whole heap of different accounts with any old name on it that they like.”
“Once they get to high school they learn all sorts of devious ways to get around these rules.”
However Catherine Gallagher said parents still had plenty of influence over their children’s activities as well as control of the home Internet.
She advised setting clear rules for online behaviour and restricting access if these were broken.
Ms Gallagher said, developmentally, young children in particular struggled to see ‘the big picture’ and needed a clear message.
“If you’re going to use this stuff, we’ve got some rules around how you use it and, if you break those rules, then, in fact, you don’t get to use it.”
“They actually need the line.”
Advice for parents
- Talk to children about what questions might arise suspicion if asked by an online friend.
- Know your children’s friends and contacts online.
- Sign up to social media accounts and friend your children.
- Get your children to help you sign up and to explain the online world. This helps you gauge their knowledge of the online environment.
- Watch online resources like TED Talks or tutorials on Internet safety with your child so you can both learn.
- Avoid lecturing your child: try to tailor any discussions to their concerns, rather than to your own thoughts and fears.
- Alternatively, if you have a particular concern to discuss, “drop and run” conversations where an idea is raised and then quickly moved on from are a good way to flag an issue with reluctant teenagers.
- Set clear rules and expectations for online behaviour and provide consequences if rules are broken.
- Expect children to make mistakes and use them as a lesson to improve online knowledge.
- Check the resources available on Netsafe.