Safer Internet Day: Should children have social media accounts?

Should children have social media accounts?>
  • The average age of a cyber criminal is 17
  • One in ten 16-19 year olds know someone who has engaged in a criminal activity online
  • A third would be impressed if a friend hacked a bank website and replaced the logo with a cartoon
  • One in ten would be impressed if a friend hacked an air traffic control system.

(Research findings from internet security software provider Kapersky Lab).

I once had an argument with a secondary school teacher about children and social media. She was unequivocal: children of any age have no place in social media. It’s too dangerous, they’re too young to understand it, and costly mistakes are inevitable.

I disagreed. Social media, and an online life are such enormous parts of today’s existence, that we’re fools if we think we can keep children from them for as long as we need.

My teacher friend quoted an incident at her school involving sleepover snapchat images, which had resulted in a 14 year old boy being expelled. He did something ill-advised – all teenagers will; he didn’t think ahead to the possible consequences – most teenagers won’t; he paid the price – no teenager needs to.

When you give a child a smartphone, and you have an internet connection at home, he’s going to find a way onto social media, whether you like it or not. If you ban it, as my teacher friend suggested, he will quite simply do it secretively, on other people’s internet accounts, without your permission. I have a redirect set up on my children’s email accounts, so that I get a copy of anything they are sent. But I know they’re wise to this. There is nothing stopping them from setting up an additional, alternative account that I don’t have access to. I cannot control everything they do, nor see everything they engage in.

Which is why it’s surely better for kids to engage in social media openly, with the full knowledge of their parents, when they’re young enough to care what we think, and to learn from an adult about safe use of the internet? My daughter, at age 11, had an account on several social media platforms, the most well used being Instagram, Whatsapp?, and iMessage. She told me yesterday that she and her friends are on PopJam. I’d never heard of it. “Oh, it’s like Facebook, but for kids.” they apprised me, and I relaxed. Not because that’s ok then; because they’re telling me about it, they’re open in their activities, and they’d let me see if I wanted to.

Safer Internet Day

Given the worrying quotes above, parents clearly need more information about internet safety and what their children are doing online. Here are some tips for parents on how to help children make safe choices online:

  • Have an open and honest dialogue with children about staying safe online
  • Encourage them to tell you which sites they might be using and talk to about anything they see online
  • Set boundaries and make an agreement on what they can and cannot do online. If the agreement is broken, restrict internet access for an agreed period of time. Make them realise it’s serious
  • Read up on information available through schools and official sites, such as ParentInfo, to make sure you are aware of issues and armed with information. There’s also Thinkuknow, where you can find information on the sites your child likes to visit, and understand the risks, if any.

You also need to talk to your child about how to behave online, in the same way you would teach them how to safely cross a road. Here are some things they need to be made aware of:

  • Be careful what you say online. Once you’ve typed and sent something, it is in the public domain; even on a closed network, you can never be sure what a friend or ex-friend might do with words you have written. Be cautious and only say something you’d be happy for your mum, or your headteacher to see.
  • If someone is rude to you online, don’t retaliate, don’t lower yourself to their level. Leave the conversation before it can be claimed you have fuelled the fire.
  • Be careful about pictures. Never share an image of someone else without their permission (or possibly more importantly, that of their parent). Once an image is online, it’s very difficult to delete it, and there’s no telling what others may have done with it by the time you have.
  • Only add people you know and trust to your online accounts. Use the blocking feature if someone tries to follow you who you don’t know.
  • Never give personal details online, even to a friend.

Children are fascinated by the online world, and rightly so. They will come across things they don’t like during the process of exploring and learning about online interaction. I see it as my job to teach them how to deal with that when it happens, and arm myself with an understanding of what is, and what isn’t appropriate for them at each age milestone. There will be no Grand Theft Auto in my house, for example, until I know they understand enough to manage its influences.

I’m not infallible, and there will be hiccups along the way. Like the link my daughter clicked on a YouTube video that led to a phishing scam which froze her phone, demanded her money, and threatened her with the police. She was terrified. But she knows we won’t judge as long as she’s honest, so that became a learning opportunity, as we learned how to reset and clean her phone, and she learned not to click links until she’s sure she can trust them. We’ve also discovered Our Pact, which has allowed me to turn off internet access and apps on her phone after 8.30pm. Really useful when you want kids to wind down and sleep rather than hide their phone under the duvet!

Isn’t it better to learn this while a parent has your back, than to discover it alone and make even further mistakes?

Are you worrying about your child as you approach the teenage years? I help anxious parents of tweens and teens feel more confident in their parenting. Get in touch to see how I can help you.

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16 thoughts on “Safer Internet Day: Should children have social media accounts?”

  1. What a fab post – this is everything i would have written. My boys both have Instragram accounts set to private. I check whet they post – it is all images of trainers and footballers and their Xbox teams! They are also on Facebook again private, but is all about games!

    After the program on BBC3 I had a long chat about internet satfey. I want the bys to be open and honost with me.

    • Yes that was terrifying. I really hope there is much more openness and learning from parents too, so that all of this is more out in the open to discuss, and stops being something that kids do that adults don’t get, because that’s where the risk really occurs I think.

  2. Totally agree with you about this Helen – openness and encouraging honesty is key. In my experience, when they get to 14 or 15, you can’t really police what they are upto so the conversations need to happen earlier. My only disagreement is in the age they start. Some of the stuff which children can accidentally come across on any social media site instantly destroys their innocence. I personally would like to keep it for as long as is humanly possible. We adhere to the strict rules on these sites and I won’t budge on that I’m afraid!

    • Agree somewhat, and I think it depends very much on the child. I think your own parenting barometer has to guide you, but the best way to make sure that barometer is accurate is to really know it yourself too. I think that is possibly where some of the risk lies – children often know more than their parents do

  3. Really helpful, thoughtful post Helen. We have to deal with the reality rather than what we wished it was. I think your sentence “when they’re young enough to care what we think” is bang on – once they’re 14 they tend to not care. So as much as I’d rather we stuck to the 13 rule, we’ve very recently allowed our Yr 7 11yo daughter to have an Insta account. Shes arty, v good at photography and all her friends are on it. She has it set to strictly private, we follow her and check it. She’s also a v mature girl and still tells us everything. We’re aware too and remind her of not posting photos where you can tell where she is (if she’s in public) until she’s left that place. She doesn’t do that anyway, but still she needs to know. I’ll keep this check-list somewhere as reference for our ‘chats’. Thank you.

    • That’s a great tip about posting identifiable images after you’ve left. I’ll tell mine that too. See, if parents all talk, and learn, there’s much more chance of children acting responsibly online.

  4. I sometimes wonder if i had the choice now whether i would join facebook. I probably still would because i think social media is impossible to avoid when blogging, but i have to admit that i am envious of my friends that have managed to stay away from all social media. I am fortunate in the sense that 11 year old J has shown no interest in going online for social media reasons to connect with friends – but i know the day will probably come soon. I hope that we’ve discussed the online world enough and told them about the dangers that they would be sensible and would know what to do and above all like you say to speak with us about it. For now i am happy that they’ve not asked to join and they know that we’d prefer to stick to the age 13 rule. I will be referring to your tips again in future i’m sure! x

    • Actually, that’s our biggest problem at the moment – not the invasion of privacy and risk, but just how easy it is to become addicted to being online. All of us who work in social media have that problem to an extent. I certainly have learned to switch devices off at particular times, after a period of being constantly glued to my phone, at the expense of other interests in my life. It’s very easy to timewaste, and I’m struggling to get that message through to my kids at the moment. But again, it’s something they’re all going to be prone to, and if I can instil a need for good habits now, hopefully they’ll be more able to self-moderate eventually.

  5. There’s sensible advice in your post and making sure that our kids would be happy for anyone to read what they’ve written is something I encouraged my daughters to think about before posting anything online. I’ve mentored children who have been bullied on Facebook and seen the harm that it does. Our local PCSO is happy to talk to children about the importance of maintaining privacy online and quite often the kids are astounded by how much she can learn before a visit… including where they go to school & what time they’re meeting friends etc. It’s all about staying safe and that is important.

    • Yes, I think our secondary school run sessions like that and it is a big eye-opener to the kids. I must admit I worry about online bullying. There are some awful stories, and when photos are involved it must be really distressing. It was hard enough when you could leave people behind at the end of the school day, but really tough when it follows you home 🙁

  6. Turning it off after a certain time is a great idea, Jack has social media, I still think Joe is too young although he has a fully locked instagram account with 4 friends. You are so right Helen it is about honesty, and the kids being able to tell us stuff, understanding that there are people out there that are not as they seem. I think there will be pitfalls but as a parent it is our job to be aware xx

  7. The stark reality is that most children want and have access to social media. As parents, making our children’s use of social media as safe as possible is crucial. It’s particularly difficult in foster care where foster carers try to normalise the childhood experience of the children they care for.

    • Oh, yes that must be incredibly difficult, and even more risky I imagine. I’m not sure what the solution is other than honesty and vigilance, and respect between parent and child, but I’m not sure a total ban wouldn’t mean even less compliance and more risk. Tough one.

      • I think you are right Helen vigilance, and respect between parent and child are both important – along with education. And yes, a total ban would probably lead to difficulties (as well as being impossible to enforce).

  8. I used to agree. I let my 10 year old on social media with my close supervision. I talked and talked and thought that if he was educated it would be ok.

    It wasn’t ok, and I could have lost my children for not protecting them, and it put so much pressure on my family.

    I don’t even know what happened, or how it started, I just know that he did things he knew he wasn’t meant to – because he was a child. Much like the teens who smoked when I was younger. I am not sure what the answer is and we also have something that turns the wifi off in the house now (which I hope has sorted it). But I no longer think it is as easy as just teaching them right from wrong.

    • Thanks for commenting Joy. I think it’s really important to see different perspectives on this. I’m in the ‘supervised exposure’ camp at the moment, but that’s because we haven’t been burned yet, and I know as the kids get older it may get more difficult. You’re right that teens will experiment, and I suppose you just don’t know to what extent they’re prepared to break the rules until you see it, so this is a good heads up.


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