Paul Bruce

Digital Marketing Professional

Parents and social media

Recently I had the pleasure of the regular e-mail newsletter from the head teacher of my kids school. This one caught my eye more than others however with a interesting section on internet safety. Pointing out to us parents that under no circumstances should our children be on social media.

Internet and Digital Safety

I am sending home today a leaflet for P4-7 parents entitled “How can I keep my child safe online?” I have been concerned to hear that some of our pupils have not been acting responsibly online and this leaflet outlines ways in which parents can support the school and ensure that their child can use the internet safely. The leaflet also includes facts about social media. I would like to draw parents’ attention to the guidelines for responsible use. Users of Facebook must be 13 or older. Snapchat is not intended for anyone under the age of 13 either and children 13-17 need parental permission. Instagram is also for 13 years and older. Children will be learning about and through ICT at school and part of that education is about using the internet safely. I would very much appreciate parents ensuring that their child is not using social media or Snapchat/Instagram as issues which arise from young children using these sites can affect friendships, learning at school as well as more serious child protection issues.

It got me thinking however about how this could be handled much better, it’s almost as-if it’s expected that kids suddenly turn 13 and fire up their internet browsers to sign-up to Facebook. Of course that’s not true, they go where (and when) their friends are. There’s little to be gained by demonising social media to our kids and everything to be gained by educating them on safe use.

Sitting on the bus the other day there was a young girl and her mum and the girl proceeded to speak to 5 or 6 different friends through Facetime one after the other using the free bus wifi. It brought home what a different world our kids are growing up in, never more than a click away from their friends at any point. When my 9 year-old son came home a few weeks ago to ask about getting a YouTube channel because one of his friends had one it reinforced this.

Age Restrictions on Social Media

First thing to understand is that Facebook (and other networks) would love to target kids for their platforms, it’s not that they don’t want younger users, rather that US law makes it very difficult to do this. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) gives owners of these platforms strict rules on what they need to do if they want to encourage users under 13 (and collect “personal information”) by stipulating that they must have the parents permission and that the parent must have access to all that childs data (amongst a plethora of other criteria and stipulations).

While schools can’t come out and support those under 13 to use these services (nor should they) they can offer guidance other than – don’t use it and making it sound a scary place. Instead seek to educate our young about the opportunities and good that social media has brought to the world and how it can be used for good in a safe way. It’s like letting your child sit in the driving seat in the car, their too young to drive but you let them sit there and get a feel for it because it’s fun and one day they will want to drive.

The dangers and confusion for parents

There’s no doubt that social media unguarded can be dangerous, but there are ways and means.  Take for example the XBox Live model, in which parents create the kids account and then when they are 18 request for that account to be migrated to an adult account. This gives clear ownership of the account to the parent whilst allowing their kids to learn how to use the service safely rather than under the radar.

We now see more and more brands building out their offerings to kids such as Netflix and YouTube both of which have specific kids offerings. Snapchat also recently launched Snapkids for users registering with dates of birth that put them under 13 (a service that does not collect any personal information and therefore doesn’t need to comply with COPPA).

Twitter of all services is perhaps the most confusing for parents however, their joining policy is entirely confusing. Technically there is no age limit to join Twitter, however as a parent if you believe your child has provided personal information you should inform Twitter and they will close the account. It highlights the disparity between the different services and the problem parents have in terms of the “just say no” mentality with social media. It’s unclear over all services for many parents what is and isn’t permitted.

I hear from many camps about the dangers of social media and how our children should simply not be on social media, sadly this is missing the point. There is no doubt there has been some tragic incidents in the past where young people have been bullied and in some extreme cases taken their lives. It is for this reason that I would advocate education as the key driver here, why do we teach sex education in schools before the legal age limit? Because we want to ensure that our children are educated to make informed decisions and are aware of the risks and the good aspects of a loving relationship. We should be doing the same with social media, teaching in schools and at home how social media is an extension of society and how it can be used for good and bad, giving our kids the street skills for the modern inter-connected world.

The social media sandbox

For the geeks of this new world, we need to create safe sandboxes for kids to let them use social networks with parental supervision and moderation, then gradually let these safeguards be relaxed until they reach adult-hood. On-boarding our kids on how to use the internet safely, it can’t simply be a case of wait until your 13 and give them the keys to the house and hope for the best. Imagine logging in to Instagram and giving your child a special account where they could only see content from approved sources that you as a parent have approved and you have oversight over comments and pictures being shared, once they hit 13 these restrictions are lifted and the account graduated to full member status at your control.

Until we have that as parents we can instil our own sandboxes by allowing our children to use accounts we create with strict privacy settings (Such as private YouTube, Instagram or Twitter accounts), used on household devices where their use can be carefully monitored and within a safe environment as we teach our children how to be responsible and safe e-citizens.

Simply telling our kids not to use social networks will only make them more enticing as they go underground either at school or on their friends devices. Time for the social media companies (and law-makers) to step up and help empower us parents (and educators) so we can encourage our kids to use social media safely.