Fears for generation online taken too far?

Why social media isn't as bad for kids as we think ...
Why social media isn't as bad for kids as we think ... Photo: Getty Images

On the weekend, my daughter and I made honeycomb, melting the golden syrup and sugar together in a tawny swirl, and dipping the finished shards in melted chocolate. It was a scene that could have played out at any time over the past few decades, if it weren’t for the soft chirruping of her phone. As a fully paid up member of the digital generation, the recipe wasn’t complete until it was posted on Instagram, where it soon garnered a fast flowing stream of likes and comments. At not-quite-thirteen-yet, and, yes, I’ll come back to that admission later, her account is limited to known friends only, and liberally sprinkled with emoticons from the hearts and flowers end of the spectrum. I like to think I stand pretty firm when it comes to managing and limiting screen time, but when a wet weekend morning squelches into gloomy afternoon it’s all bets off. I might find one boy expanding his Tekkit empire, watching Yogscast and live-chatting with other players, while his brother posts comments on Cracked and his sister hearts pictures of cookies, puppies and ponies on Instagram.

Every era has its own moral panic, and there’s no doubt in many minds that the peril stalking today’s children comes cloaked in the garb of social media. It’s not surprising that many parents, teachers and health professionals are worried when headlines regularly implicate online social media as a factor in everything from school bullying to teen suicide. Each high profile story serves to sharpen the apprehension many parents feel, but underneath the sensationalism of the recent ‘Slane girl’ incident, or the notoriety of a shocking crime like the Steubenville rape case, is a much more prosaic reality. The truth is that most kids above a certain age use social media and online networking sites, and the vast majority do so without major incident. The ABS has started to collect data and compile statistics on the way that children use computers and the internet, and while nobody would recommend throwing all caution to the wind, it’s pretty clear that it’s not as scary out there as you might think. If you read the comments on pretty much any article about the internet gone wrong you’d be forgiven for thinking that for most kids it’s a jungle out there and that inattentive parents are to blame, but the actual figures show that only 3% of children using the internet experience some kind of threatening event online and 98% of parents implement safety and security strategies around internet use at home.

Facebook is the first flashpoint for many parents, with the initial request for an account coming way earlier than expected, often well before the child turns 13, the minimum age requirement set by many sites. We were pretty prepared by the time our eldest asked to join FB, and having researched the reasoning behind the age limit decided to say yes, with conditions around privacy, passwords and who could be a friend. There’s nothing magical about the minimum age thing, it’s simply a requirement under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) enforced by the Federal Trade Commission in the US and designed to prevent companies collecting data and using it to market their products or services directly to children. Basically, it’s less onerous and cheaper to run a site that isn’t aimed at the under-13s but there’s no law that forbids them from accessing them. Going back to the statistics, in 2009 almost half (48%) of 12-14 year olds use social networking sites, and given the increase in the popularity of smart phones and apps such as Instagram and kik, that figure is likely to have grown.

No matter how hard you might wish it, social media and online networking are not going to disappear, and in recognition of the dangers it can pose, the best thing we can do is teach our kids how to use it well, as well as teaching them how not to use it. There’s an awful lot of casual blaming of the medium going on in some of the coverage of recent incidents, a tendency to blame the internet in general rather than analyse the behaviour specific to each incident. In the ‘Slane girl’ case, for example, the tone of much of the coverage can be summed up by a ‘cyberbullying expert’ quoted in The Daily Mail who says ‘It's almost impossible to protect against it [widespread public humiliation], because anyone can take a picture of anyone and share it.’ True, but most photos are unlikely to make front page news, even if they are shared online with the intention to humiliate, and implying that this is ‘almost’ unavoidable is inaccurate and lazy, and ignores the fact that it’s the behaviour that was captured that spawned the scandal.

Being online is not all rainbows and glitterbombs, well except perhaps for tweenage My Little Pony fans, but neither is it a one-way ticket to depravity and humiliation. While many of the bigger sites have begun to tighten up their policies and moderation in response to pressure from posters and the general public, Twitter and ask.fm being the most notable examples, it’s wise to have your own safety rules and strategies in place, and to make sure that your kids are really clear on what they are. There’s no need to go over the top with surveillance, installing a keylogger and spying directly is not conducive to a healthy relationship, as tech blogger Matthew Ingram discovered. My basic position is to know the sites your kid frequents, know their friends and know their passwords. Check out the government fact sheet on managing kids behaviour online at theline.gov.au for more detailed guidance.