It’s no secret that teenagers are keen and able users of the internet, and with the continued growth and ever evolving trends in social media and social networking it looks like things are not set to change anytime in the near future.
A recent survey conducted by the Australian Communications and Media Authority revealed that the vast majority of eight to 17 year-olds had accessed the Internet in the last four weeks, with figures reflecting 95 percent usage between the 8 to 11 year olds, and 100 percent usage amongst the 16-17 year olds.
Whilst the main reasons for internet use were the same across all age groups, it was quite apparent that the use of social networking remained as one of the top motives for young adolescents to be on the computer, with the breakdown of figures reflecting a 69 percent usage amongst the 12 -13 year olds, an 86 percent usage amongst the 14-15 year olds and a 92 percent usage amongst the 16-17 year olds.
Despite the fact that for the majority of these adolescents the main social networking sites which provide opportunity to meet people remain the likes of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Instagram, there is a small emergence of teens, as young as 13, who are now adding hook up, chat rooms, and dating sites to those that they visit.
MyLOL is one such online dating site that is marketed as “Google’s Number One Dating Site for Teens”, with a minimum age requirement of 14, whilst another is Teenspot, which offers chat rooms for its members entitled “singles”, “flirting” and “hottub”. Another one that is used perhaps more commonly amongst Australian teenagers is Tinder.
What is perhaps more worrying, however, is the fact that the promotion of such sites to a younger audience doesn't seem to just stop there.
An article published last year in American magazine, Seventeen, whose target audience is females aged 12-19, appeared to put the idea out there that online dating sites may be the way forward, with the writer of the article (a college aged blogger) enthusiastically regaling the story of how her friend had become engaged six months after meeting her partner on line.
Rachel Hynes, mum to a teenager and publisher of the website for parents of teens The Kids are All Right, believes that at the present time social networking sites remain the way in which most teenagers are meeting people and describes these connections, rather aptly, as the equivalent of modern day pen friends.
Whilst Rachel has no data on how often teens who meet online are actually meeting up in ‘real life’, she is certain that it happens, particularly in cases where people live within the same area and have access to public transport and the excuse of going to an event where they can meet.
So is this online hook up trend something that we, as parents, should be worried about?
According to Jocelyn Brewer, a Psychologist who works mainly with adolescents, it’s not so much that parents should be worried, but more that they just need to be very aware.
“It’s definitely the case that even for teens using social media sites who are not specifically looking to hook up, such advances and suggestions happen. The very nature of social media after all is that it encourages communication and connection, which may well lead to IRL (in real life) meet ups. Obviously the level of this communication and connection is probably not the quality ones most parents would prefer.”
Brewer highlights that the key for parents is to maintain awareness around everything that their child is doing online and believes that whilst this isn’t necessarily a trend that is hugely popular at the present time, it could well be something that we see increase in the future as children get more sexualised and more emphasis is put on sex and sex acts as a ‘currency’ to prove a child’s worth and skill.
Susan McLean, Australia’s leading expert in cyber safety and young people, echoes much of the advice given by Brewer and is quite clear in expressing the importance of the role of parenting in the age of the internet and social media.
“The Internet has allowed people to connect with anyone and everyone, and children and young people are earlier adopters of technology. Children these days don’t have an online and offline world. It’s all one and the same.”
Whilst McLean believes that these kinds of sites aren’t problematic at the moment, she does state that this doesn’t mean that they won’t be in the future.
“Let’s be honest, once you move away from anything like Facebook or Twitter, to sites where there is limited security settings, no processes in place to report stuff, and problems are not followed up, you are getting into dangerous territory.”
“Parents need to know that this stuff is out there and talk to their child,” advises McLean. “Don’t berate or bag technology. It’s the 21st century and technology is here to stay, so don’t think it’s something that’s part of your child’s world that you don’t need to understand.”
McLean says that she has met many parents who have expressed regrets at what they have allowed their children to do online, because they didn’t understand the risks and, as a result of that, it’s come back to bite them.
“You need to understand what you are trying to protect your kids from, and you need to have rules and consequences, concludes McLean. “But, more than anything, your child needs to be able to come to you and talk about things, and you need to not be afraid to ever say NO!”