The Art & Science of Parenting in the Digital Age – Social Media & Online Friendships​

“Is your child using Social Media to Interact with Online Strangers?”​

Practically every single Internet user in the world uses social media platforms today.
1.    Toddlers watching YouTube
2.    Preschoolers huddling over multiplayer Minecraft games
3.    Primary school children sharing photos & chatting over WhatsApp
4.    Early teens consuming & sharing content on Facebook. It was not too long ago when parents probably adhered to age restrictions on social media platforms more tightly.

Different social media platforms have different age limits for registered users. For most platforms (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram & Tumblr), users need to declare that they are 13 or older. For some other social media platforms such as Twitter & STOMP, there is no age limitation. 
Today however, with rapid changes in technology, many multiplayer games and messaging platforms also provide young children with “social media experiences”. Increasingly we see children playing games with strangers and chatting through mobile apps. What was originally a difficult task of keeping children away from social media now seems to be impossible.

“How can anyone stay away from online strangers in the current digital landscape?”

Research by Kingmaker Consultancy shows that about 1 in 8 upper primary girls have met online strangers in real life. 1 in 5 upper primary boys do likewise in the year 2014. When teenagers go to secondary schools, almost 1 in 4 males and females report experiences of meeting online strangers.

The age restrictions do not serve any effective regulation, or child protection. They merely attempt to prevent businesses from collecting personal information from minors. While that may “shield” children from some privacy issues, it does not help protect children from online strangers.

In fact, the very nature of social media promotes interaction between users and online strangers. Most social media platforms work on increasing user interaction (with apps, content & people) to collect data. The more users interact with each other, the more data is being collected, and drives advertising revenues on social media. Social Media platforms are certainly not “safe playgrounds” nor are they “walled-gardens”.

“What are most common ways your child could be interacting with online strangers?”

Some likely examples of interaction with online strangers are as follows:
1.    Large WhatsApp groups with multiple administrators and unknown participants
2.    Guilds & “friends” especially in social games & multiplayer online games
3.    Followers and friends of unprotected Instagram and Facebook accounts
4.    Interaction with strangers over online videos
Kingmaker’s research shows that the most common platforms frequented by upper primary students in Singapore schools are YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook & various Multiplayer Online Games.

“What can parents do in such a scenario?”

It must first be accepted that some parents regard online interaction to be a bigger concern for Internet Safety. It is also probably true that female students are generally more vulnerable. Those who are risk takers are also more likely to attempt the unsafe. For these cases, parents can do the following:
1.    Delay the “entrance” into the world of social media
2.    Closely scrutinize and monitor children’s use of these platforms if you allow them

​Yet for other parents who decide to mediate with lesser restrictions, they may want to consider:
1.    Surrounding your children with a network of relatives, friends and trusted adults online so that they can also watch out for your child.
2.    Get to know your children’s friends and participate or observe likewise in their interactions.
Social media offers both risks and opportunities for the user. Parents who feel more confident on harnessing its use can probably afford to strike out further to pursue opportunities. Yet it will probably be more prudent for the less-technology inclined parent to err on the safe side and hold back on social media for primary school children.

Originally written for Innova Primary School.

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