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Parenting the social-media-age child

Sexting is what young girls are using to get attraction from guys. And the boys are loving it – what with all the nude or nearly nude photos and “selfies”. Many young girls are sexting as a joke, as a way of getting attention, or because of “pressure from guys.” Boys sometimes blame “pressure from friends.” But for some, sexting is a way of flirting, being seen as cool, or becoming popular. And teens get some reinforcement for that when lewd celebrity pictures and videos (heralding the rise of the twerking socialites) go mainstream, with the consequences being greater fame and ‘reality TV shows’ instead of ruined careers or humiliation. Quite sad isn’t it?

Seventeen per cent of teens say they’ve been contacted online by someone they didn’t know in a way that made them feel scared or uncomfortable; 30% of teens say they’ve received online advertising that was inappropriate for their age; and 39% of teens admitted to lying about their age to gain access to websites! All avenues ripe for experimentation with sexting.

For kids and teens, social media is an essential part of their lives, much the way mobile phones were (and still are?) important to us at their age. A huge percentage of teens have used some form of social media and have a profile on a social networking site. Of the 74.2 % of Kenyans active on the internet today, teens make up sizable chunk. And, indeed, it has had a remarkable impact on parenting of Kenya’s 21st Century children.

The web can be a wonderful place for kids to learn new things, play games, get homework help, and connect with their friends. I have had my fair share of amazement seeing my niece who, at 3 years of age, can comfortably take a phone and go straight to YouTube to get her fill of the ‘twinkle twinkle’ educational video. It is also no longer strange to find a Standard 8 student stay socially connected with friends and family with such apps as Whatsapp, Twitter, Telegram, Snapchat (yes, they really love this!) and Facebook.

But beyond the positive side to Social Media, there is a flipside too as social media can be a hub for cyberbullying and questionable activities – like when Kenya was ‘treated’ to exam cheating last year through Whatsapp! It is therefore important for parents to teach their kids how to use social media wisely and with caution.

The statistics mentioned here highlight the dangers of social media. And…the dark side to Social Media for children does not end with these documented numbers! Social Media use by teens has also contributed to Underdevelopment of Social Skills, increased cases of Cyber Bullying, exposure to Pornography & Sexting and Low Self-Esteem among Social media users. Very grim realities.

Underdeveloped Social Skills: One of the biggest negative effects Social Media has had on children is the issue of underdeveloped Social Skills thanks, in a huge part, to their social media activity. While Social Media is supposed to be ‘social’, it can be very impersonal in nature. Therefore, most kids whose interactions with friends and society is mainly concentrated on the impersonal non-face-to-face Whatsapp messages or the pseudo-personality Twitter, may find it very difficult to have a face to face interactions. So, while various social media platforms have increased the number of people a person can interact with, it is slowly killing the power of intimate interpersonal interactions. Therefore, if your child can’t tell you what they are having challenges with, but would prefer to Whatsapp you instead, you now know where the problem could have sprung from.

Cyber Bullying: Bullies and mean kids have been around forever, but Social Media now gives them a whole new mass media platform for their actions. Cyberbullying ranges from a harsh, mean, or cruel responses online, to acts like impersonating a victim online or posting personal information, photos, or videos designed to hurt or embarrass another person. Recent studies about cyberbullying rates have found that about 1 in 4 teens have been the victims of cyberbullying, and about 1 in 6 admit to having cyberbullied someone. Severe, long-term, or frequent cyberbullying can leave both victims and bullies at greater risk for anxiety, depression, and other stress-related disorders. Experts say that kids who are bullied — and the bullies themselves — are at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completed suicides. To detect cases of cyberbullying, you need to create an open communication line with your Social Media active child to enable them open up to you on cases of cyber bullying they may be experiencing. You also need to monitor their Social Media interactions to get to see what they are encountering online. Please be vigilant and track this online activity? Your child’s life depends on it.

Pornography: Most pornography addicts were exposed to pornographic material at a very young age. The internet tremendously increases the risk of exposure to pornography for the 21st Century child! A study of the top 100 most popular websites in Kenya shows that pornography websites are well represented with at least 4 major sites! Social Media sites are also flooded with shared links from pornography websites. These are links your child can easily get exposed to. The best way to handle pornography is to set privacy settings on your home computer and to regularly check your child’s browsing history in order to arrest the vice before it becomes a monster! You should also have open conversations about effects of pornography with your child to ensure they are fully informed of its dangers. You can also have Net Nanny (check it out on www.netnanny.com) installed on computers to prevent and report attempts to enter pornography or mature adult content websites. Norton Family Parental Control can also do the same on your child’s phone. You can also use the mobile app, Auto Forward Spy (www.auto-forward.com) to monitor your child’s interactions online and get to know if they are being cyberbullied.

Sexting: Examples of sexting include sending nude or nearly nude photos or “selfies”; videos that show nudity, sex acts, or simulated sex; or text messages that propose sex or refer to sex acts. One of the top responsibilities for parents is to teach their kids how to take responsibility for their own safety and their own actions. It’s important to emphasize the same message about the virtual world too. Even if a teen’s intentions are playful or harmless, if messages or pictures become public, the outcome can be anything but… Have open conversations about personal responsibility, personal boundaries, and how to resist peer pressure. Talk directly about sexting. Conversations like this should occur throughout kids’ lives — not just when problems arise.

So, what can you do as a parent to prevent your child from falling prey to the negative ills of Social Media? It’s important to be aware of what your kids are doing online, but prying too much can alienate them and damage the trust you’ve built together. The key is to stay involved in a way that makes your kids understand that you respect their privacy but want to make sure they’re safe. You also need to make them realize the negative effects of exposure and, later, indulgence in pornography and sexting. Don’t run the risk of your child becoming a statistic, a sexting victim, take responsibility as a parent and act now.

Gad is the CEO of Reach Creatives, a Pan-African Social Media Communications Company. He is a social media strategist, marketer, PR advisor and content creator with a passion for connecting organizations through technology. Gad Opondo can be contacted on gad@reachcreatives.com

Author’s other works – http://www.theservicemag.com/index.php/en/feats/feature/913-why-organisation

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