Helping young people stay safe on social media

3 August 2018

As we reflect on our #BeSocialWise campaign we look at some of the ways parents can help children and young people use social media so that they keep themselves and others safe.

In an age when there are more mobile phones than people on the planet, it’s only natural that parents worry about what their children are doing on social media. Smartphones have transformed childhood in many ways through the creation of online worlds that simply didn’t exist when many parents were growing up. Our children don’t need to be in the same room to play games together, they can have hundreds of online ‘friends’, they can share their news and pictures, discuss and socialise without leaving their homes. It’s all very different from the idea of friends, play dates and socialising that many of us grew up with, and it brings new risks.

But this doesn’t mean we can’t help and advise our children on how to use social media safely. In fact there is plenty you can do to feel confident and informed, to start conversations with your children and to help them make good choices about social media, in exactly the same way that you would advise them over what to eat or when to do their homework.

How will I know if my child has a worry or problem to do with social media?

Cyber bullying, addiction to online games, developing low self-esteem, or poor body image are all things parents worry about. The risks can be real, particularly for a vulnerable child. Sue Cohen is Norwood’s Psychology Therapies Manager. Her advice is that one of the most important things a parent can do to help a child is to keep the lines of communication open. “You need to know your child, you need to be spending one-to-one time on a regular basis. It’s just time when you are listening to your child.”

Sue says that showing a positive interest in their online activity and developing a relationship that is open and respectful is actually the best form of protection you can give your child. If your child is confident that you will be understanding and supportive, he or she will come to you if they are upset or worried about anything in their online world.

How can I keep on top of how my child uses social media when it’s changing so fast?

The apps and programmes young people are using change so fast it can seem baffling and leave you feeling out of the loop. But in fact you can do some simple things to make sure you understand how social media is changing and how your child is using it.

Visit trusted websites like the NSPCC’s Net Aware  for an up-to-date guide on social networks and the apps, games and social networks that are popular with children now. Thinkuknow is a website run by experts from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection command, and addresses some of the more serious issues such as the risks of live streaming, online grooming and how to use parental controls. And don’t be afraid to do your own online research, for example you can look into games you think are suitable for your child to play with others online.

Many schools offer children advice on staying safe online, and you can ask if they run sessions for parents too. Even if they don’t already, they may think about putting something on for parents.

What about my own use of social media?

Have you considered that the behaviour you model can be more important than what you say. This is because children learn and absorb how to do things better by seeing behaviour modelled rather than simply by being told what to do. That’s why the way you behave around social media really matters to your children.

Are you constantly attached to your smartphone? Are you using it at times when it intrudes on family life, for example at dinner time? If you want to change your child’s social media use, you may have to think about your own. Sue Cohen advises: “Any parenting programme which is looking at changing a child’s behaviour would ask a parent to look at the behaviour they are modelling. When it comes to social networking, model what you want your children to do; don’t tell.” And if social media really is taking over family life, then it may be better to tackle it as a family challenge, rather than laying down rules for your child which they then see you break yourself!

How much is too much?

Sue Cohen says it’s important to judge whether your child is spending too much time on social media in the context of the family and relationships: “For example, you might have a child who is retreating to their bedroom and getting involved in online games and that fits in to ordinary adolescent behaviour.” In fact, Sue says it’s important for adolescents to have some different activity that helps them separate from their parents, which is a normal and important part of a teenager’s development.

On the other hand, for another child, that same behaviour might be a concern. And you, as a parent, are the best judge. Keep a look out for how your child is after time on social media or after playing certain games. Sue Cohen advises: “Have the confidence to draw a line, to say no when you have to, but say yes as much as you possibly can. Make your parental authority clear but be careful when you exert it – do it when it really matters to their health and safety.”

How should my child behave online?

It can really help to get your child to think about their own behaviour online. Ask them to think: are you saying something online that you would never say to another person face to face? Look at your privacy settings and think about every picture you post, as they can be accessed forever. “Only post content you would be happy with your family seeing,” says Sue Cohen. “This is an image available to your future employers. This is your legacy.”