AS I SEE IT
Talking about their teenage daughters recently, friends spoke about their hopes for their futures but one fear came in for particular mention: social media. When my own daughter was growing up my fear was about stranger danger. Today current fears are very different: while the internet has many benefits, it also has a potential for harm,
This was graphically brought home to me few weeks after our conversation when the findings of a two-weeks long inquest into the tragic death of British teenager Molly Russel from self-harm in 2017 made headlines. The inquest told how Molly (14) viewed content about depression, suicide and self-harm on Instagram and Pinterest which a child psychiatrist told the hearing were not safe
The coroner ruled that social media had a role in Molly’s death and that the thousands of images Molly viewed on line had affected her mental health. The findings were followed by demands for overdue online safety laws to protect children and by a comment from the Prince of Wales that social media firms must no longer treat online safety as an afterthought.
Suicide is now the No. 1 cause of teen death in the UK and in the last eight years the suicide rate has doubled, and a correlation might show that social media has contributed to this.
Here in Ireland the Online Safety and Media Bill which will appoint a Media Commissioner to regulate online safety codes is making its way into law.
Children’s use of social media is widespread, with the Irish charity Cyber Safe Kids showing that 93% of children aged eight-12 own smart devices and 84% are signed up to social media. In its most recent report, the charity warned that “unsupervised children as young as eight are exposed to threats of violence, sex, assault, bullying and grooming online and vast amounts of inappropriate content that can be violent, disturbing, and sometimes of a sexual nature”.
That word “unsupervised” jumped out at me. Smart phones and computers may keep children amused with online games and chats with friends but they are not a toy. Sharing personal information, exposure to inappropriate content, negative impacts on health and wellbeing, cyberbullying, and online grooming and extortion are flagged as the major five risk areas for children online.
So where are parents in the equation? They are ones who give their children phones and computers, an ideal opportunity at this point to be involved and to begin an ongoing process of teaching about online safety.
Ensuring that internet companies make serious provision for internet safety is vital. But surely schools and parents have a role too in safeguarding children. So what can they do? Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are part of teens everyday lives but parents who haven’t grown up with social media can feel at sea with it. Sharing information with children about the internet is key even though your children may be the ones who are showing you how to use different sites. (My grandchildren think my lack of internet knowledge is hilarious).
Just like curfew rules, the amount of time that is acceptable to spend on the line needs to be discussed and agreed. Encouraging children to show you the sites they are using and discussing the kind of sites that can pose a threat is important too. Safety measures include requiring children to use private profiles as opposed to public ones especially when posting pictures of themselves as these can end up anywhere after they are posted.
Having an agreement about sites that are off limits for your family and for your children to let you know about anything that they find upsetting on line makes sense. With its cloak of anonymity, the net is a perfect place for bullies to operate and children often say things about others on line which they wouldn’t do in person. When more than one nasty comment is directed at an individual it becomes bullying and children need to know that it is all right to tell about this. The school your child attends should be notified and cyberbullying should be part of their anti- bullying policy. The internet safety site Webwise has good advice on this.
There is no turning back the clock on social media and the internet where information is not always accurate or appropriate and it’s helpful for children to learn how to evaluate what they see. The web is a resource which needs policing both at home and in the industry.