Social Media: Protecting the Young

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and a host of others, local and international, have taken over the social and communicative lives of many in modern society. They supplement, and in some cases even replace, the personal contact between family, friends and colleagues. They are open to most age groups, all walks of life and predominantly free of all basic costs. For many younger users, the lack of a presence on one or another of the major networks can be seen as a social failing, an indication that someone is an outsider, socially inadequate or lacking in modern communication skills. They provide an opportunity to make new friends, to meet up, in a virtual world, with others from all walks of life from around the world, with similar interests and hobbies. Social media networks can be targeted for specific interest groups, for certain age groups, for local areas, trades and businesses.Being open for use by anyone with Internet access, be it over a computer connection or through one of the latest generation of Internet compatible smart phones, there are also a certain number of inherent dangers involved, especially for younger users and those with little or no Internet or social experience. Few of the most popular social media networks currently require any form of identification, be it of actual identity, age or location. One of the results of this lack of verification is that those of an extreme young age, under thirteen, can gain access by providing a false date of birth and, at the opposite end of the scale, those who are considerably older have the ability to create a profile presenting themselves as younger than they really are, with a false name, personality, interests.Experience in all walks of life is gained primarily through two means: learning by doing; learning by example. The first is more suitable for older Internet or social media users, the second for younger users and minors.Each social media network or platform has its own quirks, layout, rules and clientele which the user must first learn and adapt themselves to. For the more experienced user this is merely a matter of seeing what is similar to other systems and working through other individual settings and programs. For the inexperienced user, especially those younger users coming into the Internet or in contact with social media networks for the first time, this is a much more complicated experience. The Internet is a completely different society, compared to our daily, real life environment and surroundings, with its own unwritten rules and those who either abide by the rules, break them occasionally or go out of their way to circumvent and avoid all forms of responsible social behavior. Within this last group are those whose sole interest whilst surfing the Internet is to find and make contact with younger, inexperienced users and take advantage of them.Protection of younger users in the Internet is similar, in many ways, to protection of a child in everyday life. There are certain house and social rules which need to be taught and followed and several which, because of the nature of the Internet, effectively fall outside the normal scope of real life protection. One of these is the simple rule taught to every single child: don’t talk to strangers.A social media network is, initially, nothing more than a collection of individual strangers looking for new experiences, new friends and even online relationships. Everyone is essentially an unknown commodity, a person who cannot necessarily be seen and whose entire story, character, interests and personality can only be judged by what they have personally entered on the chosen site. Protecting younger users begins, however, before the first profile is viewed and, where possible, before a browser is even pointed at a social network. It begins with educating the younger potential user, explaining to them that trust, for example, is something which needs to be earned rather than given out automatically; that nothing a younger user does on the Internet or in a social media platform should be kept secret; that it is possible to switch a computer off, to block and report those who are offensive, abusive or clearly only interested in finding younger users for sexual or illegal purposes. This is especially important for those social media networks where a web cam may be used, where the connection between users is visible as well as through written communication, status updates and chat rooms. It should also be made clear to younger, less experienced users that personal information, such as home or school address, should not be given to others unless they are personally known, with personally known encompassing only those who the parents and children know outside of the Internet environment.A major factor in protecting younger users from abuse is to explain exactly how a social media platform works, which facilities are available, which security and privacy settings and how to set up a profile which will not attract the wrong kinds of interest. Here it is important to ensure that no exact locations are given in a child’s profile, that any automatic location indicators are switched off, that e-mail, home and school addresses, where they are required by the program used, are not visible to anyone other than the users themselves and the administration of the site. Contact with a younger user by mail, for example, should be switched off when it goes outside the parameters of the social media network. Likewise it should be explained how to protect certain images, such as personal photographs and information, from general view not just by other users, but also by the major search engines which constantly comb social media networks for information, for connections between users, for potential business. All information entered into a social media profile becomes, within a very short period of time, a business commodity which can be sold to third parties outside the secure net of the platform.Once a profile has been created and the new user becomes active in the social network of their choice a whole range of other users will begin to show interest and there may well be a sudden flood of friend requests. Here it is important to help a child decide which friendships are worthwhile and which may be discarded or ignored, although the end decision should remain with them. It should be made clear that turning down a friendship request is safe and acceptable and that the number of friends a person has, on those sites which do not have an upper limit, says nothing about the person themselves. People who have a larger number of listed friends are not necessarily more popular, and the numbers should not be taken as indicating a level of popularity. It is far better to have a smaller number of good and trustworthy friends with whom one can communicate than a mass of unknowns; friendship cannot be measured through numbers alone.The younger social media user should also be well educated in the meaning and method of trust. Each profile on a social media site represents one individual, but not necessarily the person as they are in real life, away from the Internet. Profiles contain only the information that a person wishes to reveal, biographies and interests are written to impress, ages are often changed as are locations and even profile photographs. The younger, inexperienced user should not initially trust what they read on a profile, and certainly not what another user tells them in a private conversation. As a form of self protection younger users should not accept anyone at face value but be shown that it is quite acceptable, indeed the best policy, to build up a friendship slowly and with care. Again, it must be emphasized that a child using the Internet should have no secrets from their parents or guardian, especially not when another user insists that certain things, such as their friendship, are best kept secret.The use of web cameras – web cams – on the Internet is a highly popular pastime for many younger users. Here all have the chance to see who they are talking to and, depending on the level of connection, hold a virtual face-to-face conversation. This level of communicative friendship is also open to abuse, especially on sites which specialize in attracting younger users, by older users who have faked their date of birth to appear considerably younger than they really are. The bulk of these users are only interested in personal sexual gratification, in manipulating others to perform certain acts which are not acceptable in normal social situations or in society in general. A smaller proportion of such users are also interested in real life sexual gratification, in actual physical molestation and sexual abuse of minors. A new social media user should be shown exactly how to avoid such people, how to report them, who to report them too and how to block them from all further contact.Signs that a web cam user is not necessarily who they claim to be include: insisting that a friendship remain secret before further contact is possible; claiming not to have a web cam themselves; claiming that their web cam is broken at the moment; having a web cam where the projected image is so out of focus that nothing can be seen; having a web cam which points at the ceiling, a wall or anywhere other than at the person themselves; asking what a person is wearing, especially under that which is visible; asking for personal details, especially of an intimate nature.Protecting the young from abuse through social media networks or the Internet in general does not have an upper age limit. Teenagers are just as susceptible to abuse and unacceptable pressure from others as the youngest users are to unwanted attention and demands. It is not uncommon for news media to highlight stories of teenagers who have been stalked, blackmailed or even driven to suicide through social media network connections, so-called friends, through fake profiles used to harass them, through a belief that an Internet friendship could have been the love of their life and there is nothing more to live for now that it has ended. Everyone should have someone to talk to, in real life, and parents and close friends are ideal. Again it should be emphasized that there is no reason to have secrets, that anything and everything can be discussed, that all problems can be brought out, sorted through and solved. Teenagers, despite age and experience, are equally susceptible to Internet and social media network influences as younger users, although the level of potential threat, of danger is a different, more refined one.The use of a social media network is fun and can be a rich experience for all, including the younger user. When commonsense rules are applied and, initially, a certain level of control, true virtual friendships can be made and maintained without any risk to the user themselves. Care and protection through education, by example and through trust are, however, implicit requirements when younger users are allowed access to any social media platform and should never be put off to another day.