It often feels like the only things we hear about social media are bad, but not all of the effects are negative. Social media can help kids to make and maintain friendships, share interests, connect with global communities, and find support networks. One study found that 70% of teenage social media users felt better connected to their friends’ feelings.
But navigating friendships can be difficult – and the nuance can be lost or misconstrued online. Kids themselves often don’t know what to do if they’re having a problem, and as parents, it can be hard to walk the line between being helpful and overly intrusive. Then there’s also the problem of time management, as many young people can and do spend endless hours on social media when left to themselves.
Having clear, set rules for how and when your child is online is really important – and helps stop any tech tantrums. If they break the rules, make sure there are consequences such as a ban on screen time for the next day. We also recommend having some set technology-free days (and yes parents, that means you’re off devices too).
Appealing to children and involving them in the conversation is a great thing to do as well. Ask them how much time they think is appropriate to spend online and come up with a deal. You can ask them to text you when they log on and log off, as this will help to show them how much time they’re actually spending in front of a screen. If they have siblings, this will hopefully keep them honest (because they’ll be told on). By involving our kids in the conversation, we’re asking them to live up to their own standards as well as ours.
This is a particularly tough one, and kids won’t always tell you when it’s going on. Be sure to look for signs such as a change in moods, a withdrawal from friends and family, and an aversion to going to school. No matter how you find out, it’s important that you as parent or carer resist an emotional display. Children tell us that when they do confide in their parents about these sorts of matters, if the adults have a big emotional reaction then the child feels they have to manage not only their own feelings but also their parent’s reactions – and so may not confide in them again next time.
That being said, you do need to take the cyberbullying seriously. Try to find out what details you can (and save them as evidence, in case you decide to report it), and talk with them about how they feel. Listen properly, without interfering, but also reassure them that they’re loved. From there, the two of you can come up with a plan together. Involving them in the decision-making process will help them regain a sense of power and control. It might be a matter of confronting the bully through a private message and/or leaving a chat or group in which the bullying is occurring. You can encourage your child to call out the bullying for what it is to the person or people who are involved, and tell them that it’s OK for them to unfriend or block the people too. If they need a break from the chat without ‘leaving’ it, many messaging platforms such as Facebook have an option to put a chat on silent, which keeps you from getting notifications without letting the other people know.
You can also support them to speak to another trusted adult (such as a school counsellor). At the same time, help them focus on or expand other healthy friendships. If you do decide that the severity of the bullying calls for something further to be done, then contact the school. All schools will have an anti-bullying policy. If it’s a particularly serious case, you might want to report it to the police. Cyber stalking, which is repeated harassment usually containing threatening messages which aim to intimidate and create fear, is a crime and should always be reported.
People behaving differently online than in person
This could be a situation where someone your child knows and who acts like a friend online but ignores them at school. It’s the sort of situation that’s very tempting for a parent to try and fix, but sorting out relationship problems such as these on their own helps children to learn important conflict resolution skills. That being said, you can help guide your child – particularly if you suspect that this is an unhealthy friendship.
A lot of what is talked about above in bullying can be applied here. Your child might want to confront those involved. Using ‘I’ statements about how they feel, such as, ‘I feel bad when you leave me out in a group,’ are good to prevent escalation and defensiveness. Remind them to speak about how their friend’s behaviour is making them feel bad – don’t make accusations about their character. Your child can speak about how it hurts to feel a certain level of closeness to their friend online, only to have them act differently in real life.
Peer pressure and self-image
We sometimes hear in classrooms from children who say they’re being pressured by their friends to post certain things online (or even just feel existential pressure to behave the same as them). It’s always hard dealing with peer pressure, but this in an opportunity for your child to practise saying no to things that make them uncomfortable. Remind your child that ‘likes’ aren’t a true reflection about how well-liked and respected a person is in real life – and that most people aren’t paying attention to the number of likes other people’s posts get anyway. If they do want to start posting things, the two of you could talk together about what the posts could be, such as their interests, hobbies, creative endeavours, or things like a selfie of their favourite silly face. It’s important they think about what sort of message they’re putting across with their posts. How are their posts showing something about them as a person?
Your child might also like to talk to their friends about the pressure they’re feeling to post online. They might want to remind their friends that what and how much they post is up to them, and that they would like their friends to stop asking or pushing for them to post more.
Sexting is the distribution of an intimate image of a person to others, and might include nude, sexual or indecent photos using a computer, mobile phone or other electronic device.
Young people who engage in the practice often do so over social media apps such as Instagram or Snapchat. While young people have a right to explore their sexuality and their bodies, there are a lot of potential risk that come with sexting that they need to know about.
Hopefully, by the time your teenager is old enough to consider anything like this, you will have already spoken with them at length about consent. It’s important that you explain to them that sending sexts of someone without their consent is not only unethical, it’s also illegal – and the sender can receive strict penalties.
Even if the person in the photo consents, if they’re under 18, it still may not be legal, as it could be classified as child pornography. Ask your young person to think carefully about what can happen if they take or send pictures of their friends or romantic partners by mobile phone, especially if they are not fully dressed, even if they agree. They could be charged with committing a criminal offence. The photos can also become part of their ‘digital footprint’, which may last forever. You should talk to them about the potential to damage any future career prospects or relationships if they are charged with a criminal offense.
It’s also critical you speak with them about taking, storing and sharing sexual images of themselves. In Victoria, you cannot be prosecuted for child pornography offences if you take or store indecent images of yourself, BUT Australian federal law does state that it can be a crime and you can be charged.
More information about social media management can be found at the eSafety website here.