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The use of online social networking sites (SNSs) has exploded in the past decade, and is a natural part of life for most children and young people. Social networking is a great way to keep up with friends and family however, there are risks associated with SNSs and children need support to navigate their online world safely.
This hot topic is a brief overview of social networking safety, written to help parents and carers promote online safety to their children. See our suggestions at the end for links to more detailed information.
What is social networking?
Social networking refers to using online services, like websites or apps (social media), to connect with other people. Children and young people use social media to chat to people they already know, find others with similar interests and experiences, share information and opinions, share photos and videos, and plan social events.
Most SNSs require users to set up a profile of basic personal information, which forms their identity on the site. Some sites, such as Facebook, link users through two-way friend requests that both people have to accept. Others, like Twitter, are a system of one-way communication and people become followers of others, rather than friends.
The social media most often used by children fall into five broad categories (although many services include aspects of more than one category):
- Social networks – services that enable people to interact with others (eg. Facebook)
- Microblogging – services that enable users to broadcast short messages to others (eg. Twitter, Tumblr)
- Media sharing – services that enable people to share photos and videos (eg. YouTube, Instagram)
- Messaging apps – like an alternative to SMS/texting, with extra options (eg. Kik Messenger, Snapchat)
- Multi-player online games (eg. Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin, Minecraft, World of Warcraft).
How many children and young people use SNSs?
Facebook is by far the most commonly used SNS, with 13.6 million users in Australia in December 2014. There are no official figures about young people’s use of social networking, but we know that children as young as 6 access social media and that use increases with age. An Australian study in 2013 found that social networking was used by:
- 23% of 8-9 year olds
- 45% of 10-11 year olds
- 69% of 12-13 year olds
- 86% of 14-15 year olds
- 92% of 16-17 year olds.
Many sites have age restrictions for use – typically users must be at least 13 years old – but these rules are impossible to police. Most social media usage by young children is online games but 29% of 9 to 10 year olds and 59% of 11 to 12 year olds have a profile on at least one SNS.
Let your kids know you care and remain approachable.
What are the benefits of social networking?
Social networking offers many benefits for children including the opportunity to:
- Stay connected to family and friends
- Connect with new people, locally and around the world, who share their interests and experiences
- Enhance their creativity by sharing music and artistic work
- Connect with people from different backgrounds and explore diverse ideas
- Develop and express their individual identity
- Take part in enhanced learning opportunities (eg. collaborate on school projects).
What are the risks of social networking?
Before reading this section, note that risk does not equal harm. For example, the AU Kids Online survey found that 28% of Australian 11 to 16 year olds had seen sexual images online, but most said they weren’t bothered by the experience. Many children will never experience any of the issues described below.
- Cyberbullying refers to people embarrassing, harassing or attacking others online. It can occur together with face to face bullying or on its own. Cyberbullying can have serious consequences for children and is covered in detail in a separate Cyberbullying Hot Topic.
- Sexting is using the internet or mobile phone to create and share sexually explicit messages or images. Sexting can be a serious issue, with both legal and emotional consequences. Please read the separate Sexting Hot Topic for more information.
- Sexual predators are exceptionally skilled at using social media to identify and groom children for later sexual contact. Predators use social media to:
- Obtain a child’s contact details (from profiles or online chats)
- Build rapport with a child (eg. pretend to be a child in an online game)
- Lower a child’s inhibitions by slowly introducing sexual content into their conversations
- Engage in sexting (often pretending to be the same age as the child)
- Seek a face-to-face meeting with a child.
Note that grooming children is a crime. If you suspect that your child is in contact with someone engaging in these behaviours, contact the police immediately.
- Loss of privacy and harm to your reputation – When young people make online friends with people they don’t know in real life, their information can end up being shared far beyond their circle (eg. with bullies or future employers) and can be almost impossible to remove. About 3 in 10 children aged 11 – 16 years have online friends who they first met online and with whom they have no offline connection.
- Personal information posted on SNSs (eg. birthday, full name, even hobbies and pets’ names) can be used by bullies or stalkers, can help criminals guess passwords or target you for scams, help sexual predators build rapport and possibly lead to identity theft (when someone gets enough information to use your identity to borrow or steal money or commit other crimes using your name).
- Geotagging refers to location data being embedded in images taken on smart phones and some digital cameras. Location information can also be shared by some apps and by “checking in” on Facebook. When images are shared online, the location data can be accessed by others, potentially revealing a home address to strangers or telling thieves you’re away on holiday.
- Viruses and other malware – malicious software designed to damage, disrupt or take control of your computer can be accidentally downloaded from SNSs, typically by clicking on a link posted by someone else.
- Access to inappropriate content – SNSs can provide opportunities for children to access materials such as sexual or violent images, information about weapons or drugs, and sites that promote behaviours such as self-harm or extreme dieting.
Calm conversations with your kids will always be more productive.
How can my young person use social networking safely?
Practical tips to tell children and young people
- Set your profile to friends only – The default setting for many SNSs is to share all information publicly. You need to change the setting to share only with friends.
- Use strong passwords that are easy to remember, but hard for others to guess. Learn how to make a strong password at: http://www.staysmartonline.gov.au/computers/set_and_use_strong_passwords
- Don’t share passwords with friends. Children do this a lot as a sign of trust between friends, but problems can occur when friends fall out.
- Think before you post – Would I want the whole world to see this? Even when I’m an adult? Once something is online, it can’t ever be completely removed.
- Think before you click – How do I know this is safe? Never click on links in emails or on SNSs. They may download malware to your computer or be an attempt to get your personal information.
- Don’t connect with people you don’t know in real life. People aren’t always who they say they are. If you do connect with someone new online, NEVER agree to meet them face-to-face without a trusted adult present.
- Don’t put personal information that identifies you on SNSs and don’t post information about other people without their permission. This includes photos that reveal identifying information (eg. a school uniform).
- Disable geotagging and avoid behaviours that reveal your location (eg. “checking in” on Facebook).
- Tell a trusted adult straight away if you see something online that bothers you, or if someone is bullying or harassing you.
Practical tips for parents  
- Get involved – Be aware of what your child is doing online. Become familiar with SNSs – explore them with your child or join up yourself to see how they work. Be Facebook friends with your children.
- Agree on clear expectations and rules – Agree on acceptable online behaviour, which sites are okay, and the amount of time they can spend online. Be aware that having lots of restrictions minimises risk, but also minimises opportunity to develop skills and become resilient.4
- Actively talk to your child about things they may find problematic online. Help them develop proactive coping strategies such as blocking unwanted contacts, telling a trusted adult, or making an official report of the problem.
- Be aware that saying “No’ may not work – As children get older, rules become less effective, so discuss safety strategies for things like meeting new people, in case it happens anyway.
- Explain the implications – Ensure children understand that things they post can be copied and shared elsewhere, and that it’s almost impossible to remove them after that happens. Young people may not think about the future and need help to realise that something which seems harmless now could be very embarrassing or damaging in the future (eg. when a potential employer sees it).
- Keep lines of communication open – Reassure children that they won’t get in trouble for telling you when something goes wrong (eg. if they accessed inappropriate content or contacted a stranger).
- Learn about the privacy and protection features of the SNSs your child uses. Help children review their privacy settings.
- Use safety tools – All major internet service providers offer tools to help manage children’s online access (eg. filtering inappropriate websites). Keep in mind that a lot of children’s access to the internet takes place away from home on smart phones or other hand held devices.
- Never ignore or minimise cyberbullying – If your child shows signs of being cyberbullied, listen to their concerns, work with them to take control of the situation and seek professional help if needed.
- Encourage your child to engage in outside activities and value face-to-face time with friends.
Parenting brings joys and challenges. Stay strong and love your kids.