We need an app for a tech-safe childhood

What part should parents play in their children's social media usage? Photo: iStock
What part should parents play in their children's social media usage? Photo: iStock

Allowing a child to have a smartphone wasn’t the done thing in my family. I didn’t get my first mobile phone until I graduated from high school but that meant I was lucky enough to have spent my childhood mobile-free – something that is unfamiliar to many children these days.

Now, I see children as young as four using tablets and smartphones, and the majority of them have an app for at least one social media network. I can’t help but feel concerned about this.

This is not only because, like adults, children can get depression or anxiety from being part of the “like” culture, or that they can suffer from “FoMo” (Fear of Missing out). Many constantly check their feeds at home, in the classroom and basically everywhere.

This is not only because social media can make people feel bad about themselves and their lives, as they see how other people present their “ideal” lives, which is usually different from reality.

But one can only imagine the amount of information to which these children are exposed and the number of people they can “meet” through these networks. Much of the information is inappropriate to their age and their new “friends” might be the same.

Social media makes it easy for children and adolescents to meet and interact with complete strangers. It has, as psychologists say, removed the barriers between a young person’s public and private self, leaving them vulnerable through compulsive sharing online.

Teenagers are at higher risk because they are curious but have limited experience to judge if a certain interaction is suitable. Or even safe. They might not fully appreciate the risks of giving personal information to strangers. Some apps require a minimum age for membership but this is often ignored.

Take Snapchat, for example. The app allows users to send and receive photographs or videos, which are subsequently erased after 10 seconds or less. This makes it easier for teenagers to send explicit, silly or embarrassing shots of themselves thinking that they will disappear after a few seconds. What they often don’t realise is that such material can be saved by anyone by means of another free app.

It’s the same with Instagram, which allows users to take, edit and share photographs and 15-second videos. Even when shared on a private network, this can be saved and shared with people outside the intended network.

These apps are very popular with teenagers everywhere and particularly so in societies like ours, where adolescents – particularly girls – have a very limited social life, which usually does not extend beyond their family circle and school friends.

Parents often express concern about their children’s overuse of social media. But how many actually sign up to such networks and follow their children to check their posts and interactions?

While there is software that allows parents to see the content on their child’s smartphone remotely, I think the best way to ensure children’s online safety is to enter their world and engage with them. But this should be done in a way that doesn’t make the child feel they are being constantly monitored.

Parents who allow their children to use social media apps need to have a frank discussion with them about the potential risks, and especially about the false sense of security that apps such as Snapchat may offer.

I realise that adolescents on the cusp of independence usually don’t like their parents’ involvement in their personal lives, but this should not stop parents from doing their duty. They need to be vigilant about their children’s smartphone use and follow their activities to prevent them from falling prey to cyberstalking, cyberbullying, cyberblackmailing and even sexting or sending sexually explicit messages to strangers.

The UAE seems to lack public research on social media usage among children and adolescents, although on an anecdotal basis it seems very high. The many areas that deserve exploration include the reasons they use such networks, the amount of time spent on them and the consequences of that usage. Are there experts familiar with our culture who can advise parents and adolescents on how best to stay safe online? Should there be awareness talks in schools on the potential risks of using social networks? How do we make sure that children and adolescents are aware and are empowered enough to deal with problems they face online?

Many parents grew up without mobile phones and before the advent of social media so it’s more difficult for them to appreciate how this new technology can affect their children. But it is something every parent needs to consider. We can’t stop children using social media, but we can enter their world and make and help keep them safe.


On Twitter: @ AyeshaAlmazroui

Published: December 14, 2014 04:00 AM


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