Online Report – Children using social media

Can we conclude that adolescents and children are using social media in a reckless fashion, endangering themselves and others?

It has now become more apparent than ever that children are over-engaging with social media. Along with the 800 million active Facebook users they are spending an absurd amount of time in a relationship with their computer screen. Facebook appears to have become part of everyday life, almost in a ritualistic sense, like getting dressed or having breakfast. Facebook state, “In order to be eligible to sign up for Facebook, people must be thirteen (13) years of age or older.” However, everyday use of Facebook is shown to be most common amongst girls between the ages of ten and twelve. The fact that Facebook determines it not suitable for anyone under the age of thirteen to use the social network, yet the people most engaged with Facebook do not meet the minimum age requirement can be seen as quite concerning in terms of what these young girls are exposed to on an extremely regular basis. And this begs the question of just how inappropriate social media sites are for the use of children?

The issue of ‘sexting’ is something that I have heard a lot about due to growing up in these times of technological revolution but I have never been exposed to the reality of how dangerous and destructive this activity can be, until recently. A few weeks ago when sitting with my fourteen year old sister a disturbing image appeared on her Facebook news feed. It was a topless photo of a girl in her year at school. The boy responsible for the publication of this image to Facebook (also a minor) has committed a serious criminal offence under The Protection of Children Act 1978 and The Criminal Justice Act 1988. The image was taken down by Facebook a day later but realistically it was already too late. The image is out there on the internet, and potentially in the possession of someone far more dangerous than a fourteen year old boy.

After considering this issue I employed the use of the site at the source of this incident to engage with the views of fellow Facebook users on the matter. I created a poll where I asked, “It seems like children accessing social media sites are getting younger and younger. Do you think there are enough safety features in place by these sites to prevent children from accessing age inappropriate, harmful or ‘adult’ content? Out of the 64 people who took part in the poll 44 voted “No, these sites allow anyone to sign up and access an ‘adult’ world”. 20 votes went to “They do what they can, but it is ultimately the parent’s responsibility”. And there were zero votes for “Yes, these sites are protecting children’s interests and safety”. It is apparent from these findings that there is a general feeling that children are not being protected online and that ultimately social networking sites are no place for young children.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) are well known for their awareness campaigns about child safety online. They appear to be the only well known group of its kind. They produced a video aimed at 11-16 year olds called ‘Exposed’. You can watch it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ovR3FF_6us. I became aware of this video through twitter. I found the video to be very successful in demonstrating just how out of hand ‘sexting’ can get. It really shows how one decision can affect the rest of your life, in some ways more dangerous than others and it is clear that this is the point that adolescents and children need to be made aware of. The work CEOP do is very important and current to the culture we now live in. I contacted them through twitter and they directed me to their website where I asked if anyone would be available to discuss different matters within the issue of child safety online. Unfortunately they declined saying “We receive a large number of similar requests each year and are unfortunately not able to assist with these”

However, Anne Collier (http://www.netfamilynews.org/bio.html) has quite a different opinion on how safe children are on social media sites. She is the founder of Net Family News and works on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board. In an interview with Anne Collier she explained “The fear people feel about young teens and children on social media sites is not grounded in research and facts but the hype and hysteria created by the media. It is easy to condemn kids as not being careful on these sites in terms of privacy but they are not stupid and the vast majority of them use these sites appropriately and mindfully.” When asked about parental involvement when children use social media sites, Anne responded, “Parents have to be involved. They have to talk to their kids and try to understand them to know if they are being safe online or not. However, they must try not to be intrusive as kids can go underground if they feel too monitored.” Anne believes that “Social Media sites aren’t crawling with predators and the dangerous places they are made out to be by the media.” However she does agree that social media sites can “amplify” the issue of sexting amongst young teens, and that if an inappropriate image of a minor makes it on to a site like Facebook “the results can be life-destroying”. When asked if social media sites could ideally be doing anything else to make incidents like this as rare as possible, Anne explained that Facebook are now using Photo DNA technology to source photo’s like this and remove them.

Ultimately, nothing in this world is perfect and social media sites admittedly have their flaws. There is no evidence one way or another to say if social media sites are being used correctly by adolescents and children. It is clear that it differs from child to child whether they are going to respond positively or negatively to social media. It cannot be proven that engaging with social media makes a child more susceptible to harm or at risk of predators. However in terms of ‘sexting’ it is clear that social media can act as a catalyst.

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