Though we’re in the midst of summer, and thoughts of school may be far from your child’s mind just now, this might be a good time to take a moment to learn more about what your child might be doing/learning during the summer via social media. If he/she is begging to join a social network, it’s a serious undertaking that involves proper education and action from caring adults. Though there are many positive elements of the Internet, we also know it’s imperative to give children safe and monitored access to help them carefully navigate the Internet insofar as their maturity and development allows. Regardless of whether your child already has social media accounts, or whether they’re just beginning to enter into the online world, there are important points for caring adults to consider, including: age, maturity, psychological capability, the ability and freedom to be able to disclose when fearful or in trouble, and knowledge of reporting malicious material.
Social media use by children is extremely popular. Many are able to utilize social networking sites by using their own smart phones at younger ages than ever before. In 2015, one survey found that 75% of 4-year-olds owned or had access to smartphones or tablets! According to the Pew Research Center, 24% of teens go online “almost constantly,” attributing this to the widespread availability of smartphones. Also, 22% of teens log onto their preferred social media site/app more than 10 times each day, and more than half of tweens and teens log onto a social media site more than once a day. With the proliferation of many new apps, teens are consistently diversifying their social media usage – 70% using more than one social networking site at a time.
It’s challenging to think of a specific age that children should be before beginning to utilize social media. Many social media websites and apps require children to be 13 in order to create accounts. This isn’t to protect developing brains; rather, it’s the age set by Congress per the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which prevents companies from marketing and collecting certain types of information from youth under 13. Yet, most children are technologically savvy enough to create their own accounts using fake information—or thru their parents help. A consumer reports survey found that 7.5 million Facebook users were younger than 13, and 5 million were under the age of 10. Among children age 10, 95% of their parents knew the child was using the site, while 78% of their parents helped create the account—despite the fact that doing so is in direct violation of the terms of service!
Aside from any legal concerns of allowing young children to join social media, there is also a more important issue of maturity and psychological capability. Some kids may be ready to handle social media under the legal age of 13, but most probably can’t. You are the best judge of your child. Ask: Can she [or he] use it in ways that are healthy and respectful of themselves and of others? And not only that, are they psychologically capable of handling what they encounter? A new phenomenon has been identified by the American Academy of Pediatrics as “Facebook depression” that develops within tweens and teens after spending large amounts of time on social networking sites such as Facebook (but also including other social media apps)—increasing social isolation and the online seeking of affirmation. Other concerns have to do with children who become preoccupied with receiving attention via their posts, developing a tendency to measure self-worth to the quantity of followers or “likes,” which might cause them to behave in ways that they would not normally behave in order to receive affirmation. God made them in His image, but the Evil One seeks to destroy!
Here are some thoughts to ponder and eventually ask your child when tasked with the responsibility of helping children navigate safely online. Can your child truly control his/her information (such as keeping passwords private, reviewing content from photos/posts and limiting the disbursement of personal information)? Prevailing data shows that children often can’t. Only 60% of children have enabled privacy settings to protect their social networking accounts, and 50% don’t disable their location and GPS services –which allows strangers within the apps to have access to their physical location. Worse, even if the GPS services were in fact disabled, many post their home addresses online. The risk of adults with bad intentions utilizing the Internet to identify the exact location of a child at any moment is incredibly high. Children may learn to avoid posting their address after you read this and remind them, but do they also know not to post pictures that provide their school colors, mascot, or images of a home or school in the background? Please carefully consider the responsibility children must exhibit to assess these measures with every post, before providing even limited access to them. Commit to reviewing privacy settings together to optimize any child’s social networking account in order to have the most secure environment possible, regardless of age. Keep in mind that privacy settings frequently change and are never “fail-safe,” as a friend’s lack of settings could make another child’s information vulnerable. (End of Part 1 – Part 2 next week)