I recently did a presentation on anti-bullying, and particularly cyber bullying, to over 500 students from Kindergarten to Year 6 at a primary school. When I asked the children to raise their hands if they were using social media I was stunned by the amount of hands that went up.
I’ve read plenty of articles and seen lots of survey results indicating that most children don’t take much notice of the minimum age requirements on social media sites (commonly set at 13 years). But based on what I saw first-hand, I would estimate that at least 90% of children between the ages of 5 and 12 are active on social media.
This raises lots of other questions, such as how many parents are aware that their children are using social media? A lot of parents actively help their children sign up for these sites, but just how many parents are left in the dark? And how many children are being left on their own to navigate the complex world that is social media?
Is Social Media OK For Kids?
Social media is huge and is only likely to increase in popularity as time goes on. More and more social media sites are being developed all the time, and most kids look to social media as a way of keeping in touch with their friends.
Social media has its good points and its bad points; it’s definitely a double-edged sword. Whether social media is a good thing for children to use or not is a very grey topic with plenty of variables. Lets take an objective look at how social media can be both a good thing and a bad thing.
The Good In Social Media
The question is often asked whether social media is really social? And this debate is likely to continue forever, as it really depends on how it’s being used.
Staying In Touch
Social media is a tool that helps children contact their friends quickly on a wide scale, making it much easier to stay in touch with friends they may not see that often. This can be a good thing for instance if your children have changed schools, as it enables them to stay in touch with friends at their previous school who may otherwise fall by the wayside.
Social media can be a fun, engaging and easy way for kids to be entertained. Sites like Snapchat allow you to draw funny pictures and be creative. Other sites encourage you to write stories. You can also share pictures that tell a story, as there is much truth to the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.
The convenience offered by social media is also a positive. Inviting people to a party has never been easier, with time-consuming physical invitations becoming quite old-fashioned. And unlike a phone call, you don’t necessarily have to respond to a post/tweet/snap instantly (although many children feel they have to do so – more on that later!). Kids can also use social media to help connect people together by sharing posts, and they can support others by liking and commenting positively on their posts.
Supporting Good Causes
Possibly the biggest advantage of social media is that it has allowed kids to raise awareness for good causes, and to get help for people in need. Children can use their online voice to be heard and to make a positive difference in various social scenarios, and it’s great when you see them using social media in such a clever way.
The Bad In Social Media
Unfortunately, all the positives that come from social media need to be balanced out with the risks, which are significant. Following are the risks that most parents are concerned about as far as their children’s use of social media goes.
After asking the 500 students at the primary school whether they used social media, I then asked them to leave their hand up if they’d already seen cyber bullying. I didn’t notice any hands going down.
Cyber bullying is the biggest concern for parents these days in terms of keeping their children safe online. The majority of school children are affected by cyber bullying – whether they are the direct victims, the perpetrator, or the much-neglected bystanders who can be affected almost as much as the victims.
Social media is responsible in part for children lacking empathy for others. When children are being mean to someone on a screen and not face-to-face, they don’t seem to realise or care that the person is real, has feelings and can be greatly affected by the words they see. There’s much to be said for good old face-to-face communication skills.
One of the worst factors about cyber bullying is that it’s EVERYWHERE – it takes on many forms and it exists on most if not all social media platforms. Sadly it results in victims following a path of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and in the worst cases successful attempts at suicide.
The posting of inappropriate images is unfortunately common, particularly with young girls often feeling pressured to send nude or half-nude pictures of themselves to their boyfriends. This often leads to embarrassment with photos being shared, which then leads to cyber bullying. Sexting has directly resulted in many tragic suicides that could have been avoided.
Pressure On Children To Respond
Children put so much pressure on themselves to respond instantly to others on social media. The FOMO factor (Fear Of Missing Out) is huge and very real. Keeping up with social media is a daunting task for children, and it often takes attention away from other, more meaningful and beneficial activities.
The internet is full of inappropriate content for children, and much of it is apparent on social media sites. Many social media sites are not monitored, meaning anyone can pretty much write anything they want. This is a large part of the reason why the legal minimum age requirements for most social media sites are 13 years or more.
Predators On Social Media
Plenty of predators search social media sites to find vulnerable children who they feel would be relatively easy targets for online grooming. The ultimate aim is to get children to meet with them in person, often for sexual purposes. The majority of predator activity happens on anonymous social media platforms, where plenty of users are not who they pretend to be.
Children may be told that what they put on social media is permanent, ie that what goes online stays online. But most don’t really understand the full impact of that statement.
Mistakes commonly made by children online, who by nature post before they think, can be detrimental in numerous ways. Career opportunities are being lost, reputations are ruined and relationships are destroyed frequently as a result of poor use of social media.
Should Your Children Be Using Social Media?
Whether or not your children ‘should’ be using social media, they probably will be doing so regardless of any legal age requirements. The peer pressure to use the same platforms their friends are using is likely to be greater than the pressure they may feel from their parents telling them not to go there.
The most important thing for you as a parent is to know what social media platforms your children are using and how they’re being used. It’s simply not safe for your children to be let loose on social media, but with you there to monitor and guide them the chances of them making bad mistakes can at least be minimised.