Navigating social media, cyberbullying and the online world with your children.
This generation of Australian teenagers is the first generation to be surrounded by digital devices and the internet since the day that they were born. In a short period of time, the internet has become an integral part of the digital lives of young Australians. Ask any teenager if they have used social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok and WhatsApp for messaging, photo sharing and video streaming and most will say they access one, if not more, multiple times a day, on multiple devices.
Especially in times when in-person interactions have been restricted for so long due to COVID-19, social media is a valuable tool. It still allows people to feel connected with friends and family, to share ideas, communicate with other students, and engage with those who have similar interests — wherever they may be. However, the flip side is that social media is not always used for good, and its effects can be extremely harmful to children.
Being online all the time can affect sleep patterns, which subsequently affects learning at school. Young people may also share more information, opinions and photos than they should on social media, and this can lead them to become targets for online predators. Social media can also be detrimental if students post questionable material that has the potential to damage their reputation years into the future — for example, when they apply for employment.
Instant messaging, text messages, email, social networking sites and forums can all be used for cyberbullying — when technology is used to hurt or embarrass someone or to make them afraid. While all bullying is terrible, cyberbullying is different because it has the potential to reach a large audience very quickly, it’s difficult to escape, and publicly posted messages are hard to remove.
The effects of cyberbullying are far- reaching. People who bully online often do so anonymously, through setting up fake profiles or names so that they can be more bold in what they post. Bullying online can cut deep and make the person on the receiving end feel unsafe and scared, both at school and at home. As lots of teenagers are online constantly, checking messages and getting alerts sent directly to their smartphones, cyberbullying can feel relentless and as though the target is being bullied 24 hours a day.
Unfortunately, cyberbullying happens far too much, according to research from the University of New South Wales, which states that one in five Australian children aged eight to 15 has been cyberbullied. Three quarters of all Australian schools reported cyberbullying in 2015 (and, on average, there were 22 complaints every year in a secondary school). This means that in an average school, there is a whole class of tweens and teens who are being bullied online.
According to esafety.gov.au, in the 12 months to June 2017, one in five young Australians reported being socially excluded, threatened or abused online. Meanwhile, esafety.gov.au also says that one in five Australian young people (15 per cent of kids and 24 per cent of teens) admitted behaving in a negative way to a peer online — such as calling them names, deliberately excluding them, or spreading lies or rumours. Of these, more than 90 per cent had had a negative online experience themselves.
How does cyberbullying make someone feel?
For those being bullied online, they may feel guilty, hopeless and unable to escape the situation, alone, sad and anxious, unsafe and afraid, stressed out, ashamed, humiliated and embarrassed. Absolutely no one deserves to be made to feel this way.
Signs to watch for
Children may not always tell adults about cyberbullying through fear they may overreact and make the situation worse. Parents should watch for these signs:
• Being upset after using the internet or their mobile phone
• Changes in personality, becoming more withdrawn, anxious, sad or angry
• Appearing more lonely or distressed
• Unexpected changes in friendship groups
• A decline in their school work
• Changes in their sleep patterns
• Avoidance of school or clubs
• A decline in their physical health
• Becoming secretive about their online activities and mobile phone use
Things that parents can do to try to stop cyberbullying
The sooner that your child tells someone, the sooner that something can be done to change the situation and make them feel safe. If they are being cyberbullied and are feeling desperate, they need to ask for help. There are people who can help now.
• Don’t retaliate or reply — this only encourages more bullying.
• Block the person doing the bullying and change privacy settings.
• Report it — find out what the reporting process is for abuse on the service you’re using.
• Collect the evidence — keep mobile phone messages and print emails or social networking conversations.
• Don’t deal with it alone — encourage your child to talk to someone,such as a family member or friend.
• If they are getting threatening messages and feel like they are in danger, call 000
and report it to the police.
Instagram for 10 year olds?
In late September 2021, Facebook halted its Instagram Kids project after concerns about the photo-sharing app’s impact on teen mental health. Instagram said it was pausing work to address concerns raised by parents, experts and regulators. This follows revelations in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that Facebook had commissioned research on issues such
as body image and self-esteem.
The head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, defended the concept of an Instagram site for 10 to 12 year olds and said he firmly believed children should be able to access a version of the app — which bars under-13s — that was designed for them.
“The reality is that kids are already online, and we believe that developing age-appropriate experiences designed specifically for them is far better for parents than where we are today,” says Adam.
Before this announcement, in September 2021, child psychologist Dr Michael Carr Gregg spoke to SAFM breakfast radio in Adelaide about Instagram Kids. He provided his tips for parents to help them navigate and safeguard their children using social media, and his opinion on Instagram Kids.
SAFM: What do you think about Instagram Kids?
Dr Michael Carr Gregg: “It’s a terrible idea. Social media has been labelled social comparisons on steroids. You’re bombarded with everyone else’s highlight reels. It’s hard enough as a middle adolescence. Now we’re seriously suggesting that we do it for a 10 to 12 year old? Bad idea.”
SAFM: What are some of the impacts on children’s mental health at using social media?
“Well, we know that there are four main dangers — the bullying and harassment, the online side of bullying has been huge. We don’t have to think too hard to remember Dolly Everett just a couple of years ago. Then there’s the inappropriate content, there’s a lot of really rough stuff online, the potential for addiction and, of course, the reputational dangers. If you basically do something dumb online at 10 to 12, it can follow you through the rest of your life.”
SAFM: Do we need to have a look at ourselves as parents and our social media use?
“It’s all a matter of you supervising a little bit. Do they have the skills, the knowledge and the strategies to use the screen time that they’re having in a safe, smart and responsible way? There’s a booklet called The Parents Guide to Instagram 2019, which was put out by Reach Out, which is an excellent group and that’s giving parents the information that they need.
“Make sure that all the filters are in place, that you’ve done everything that you can to make sure the use is safe. So, I think if you’ve done that, then you can rest a little bit easier.”
SAFM: So should the government be legislating to protect kids from these platforms?
“Well, yes, especially since Facebook’s own internal research, which was leaked recently, has shown it’s hugely problematic for older kids. If you take less mature people, it’s likely to be more of a problem. And remember, you’re supposed to be 13 to be registered. And that’s a joke. I go into primary schools, 70 per cent of the kids already on it. So, yes, I do think the government should step in. And so far, we’ve seen a reluctance by government to take on social media, which is unfortunate.”
SAFM: What’s one thing that parents should do today in regards to their kids being online?
“You’ve got to look at your own use. The one thing you could do is you could log on to something called a digital license. So the good folk at Google have actually invented a digital license for primary school kids, which is kind of like the old pen license that we had at school. So this is something they could do online, which gives them the skills and the knowledge and the strategies to use safely. It’s a $10 investment, but I think very worthwhile.”
This article originally appeared in Choosing a School Victoria #34