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Two teenaged girls taking a selfie for social networks

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  • Of Australian children aged 9-10 years, 29% have a profile on a social networking site, as do 59% of those aged 11-12 years and 92% of those aged 15-16 years.
  • Over a third (36%) of children aged 12-13 years and almost three-quarters (71%) of children aged 16-17 years use social networking sites every day.
Social networking is using the internet to connect with other people. Social networking sites are a big part of teenagers’ and children’s social lives. You can help your child get the most out of social networking and avoid its downsides.

Social networking for children and teenagers

‘Social networking’ is using the internet to interact, form communities and build connections with people who share common interests.

Teenagers use social networking sites such as FacebookTumblr, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram to:

  • create online profiles
  • post comments on their own and other people’s posts, photos and videos
  • upload links, photos and videos, in which they can tag other people, or be tagged by others
  • send and receive messages
  • join or follow interest groups.

Some children and teenagers also connect with other people through online gaming sites.

What your child gets from social networking sites

Overall, social networking sites are like an extension of face-to-face interactions. So the biggest benefit your child might get from using social networking sites is a sense of connection and belonging to family, friends and peers.

This is because social networking sites let your child share what he’s doing and how he’s feeling, keep in touch with others, connect with new people and find new communities based on shared interests.

Your child can get a lot of other benefits from using social networking sites, including:

  • digital media literacy: exploring and experimenting on social networking sites helps your child build knowledge and skills
  • improved learning outcomes: schools often use educational social networking sites to encourage collaboration and sharing
  • creativity: your child can get creative with profile pages, posts, photo and video uploads and so on
  • civic and political engagement: your child can get information about current affairs, explore values and ideas and take action on issues
  • mental health and wellbeing: a sense of connection and belonging is good for your child’s self-esteem – and your child might be able to get help with things that are worrying her by using social networking.

Risks of social networking sites

Social networking risks might include your child connecting with people who humiliate, bully or stalk him or even someone who wants to harm him.

Your child might also post comments, photos or videos of herself or others, which could cause problems. For example, images can be sent on to people your child doesn’t know, or they can get negative attention. Sometimes old and embarrassing images left online can even affect future job prospects.

Learning how to navigate social networking risks can help your child become more resilient.

Social networking: what you can do

You can’t keep up with everything your child is doing online every day. But you can build trust by having regular, respectful conversations with your child that show him you understand how important social networking is to him.

It’s also a good idea to get to know the sites your child is using. Ask your child to show you what sites are popular or how parts of her favourite site or app work. If your child is over 13, avoid directly asking to see her social networking page, because she might feel you’re intruding.

Creating your own profile on a social networking site will also help you get to know and understand how sites work. Encourage your child to be your online friend. But respect your child’s privacy by not posting on his timeline or making comments on his posts – he might find this embarrassing and might not want to stay connected with you online.

The likelihood of children and young people posting personal information on social networks increases with age. It goes from 28% of children aged 8-9 years, to 77% of young people aged 14-15 years, to 79% of young people aged 16-17 years.

Family guidelines for social networking

Here are some practical social networking guidelines that might be useful for your family:

  • Check that the social networking sites your child wants to use are appropriate for her age. For example, to have a Facebook account you need to be 13 or older.
  • Negotiate guidelines with your child about when it’s OK to use social networking sites. For example, you might both decide that the message feature needs to be turned off when it’s time to do homework.
  • Negotiate guidelines for online time. Software programs that limit the amount of time spent online might be useful for some families.
Some parents have found that it’s useful to work with their child to draw up an agreement that covers internet or smartphone use.

Protecting privacy on social networking sites

Your child can stay safe and protect his reputation by taking some privacy precautions:

  • It’s not a good idea for your child to share her school, phone number or date of birth on her profile. It can be a good idea to have a profile picture with more than one person or to use an image or graphic for her picture.
  • Remind your child to regularly check and update the privacy settings on social networking sites so that only direct friends can see your child’s photos, videos and status updates. Also check whether posts to your child’s main social networking site are automatically shared on other sites – and disable this feature.
  • Images of your child might be tagged and shared by other people. In this case, that person’s privacy settings apply to the image. Talk about this with your child so you both know what the risks are and can have strategies for managing them – for example, many sites let you untag yourself.
  • Keep passwords and log-in details private and secret. Your child should also make sure he logs out after using public computers, such as at a library.

Posting inappropriate content and comments

Here are some ways you can help your child avoid posting anything inappropriate:

  • Make sure your child knows that anything she posts online – photo, video, status updates – might become a permanent part of her online reputation. Years from now, someone might be able to see an embarrassing old photo of her.
  • Ask your child to think about whether there would be anyone who might be offended by a post or use it to humiliate or bully him or someone else. As a general guideline, if your child wouldn’t do or say something in front of a live audience, he shouldn’t put it on his profile. This also goes for images, videos and information about friends.
  • Your child should be aware of the consequences of posting provocative or embarrassing photos of herself or others online. She might also like to think about what might happen if she poses for inappropriate photos in real life, such as at parties.
  • Encourage your child to check the tone of his social networking messages before he sends them to make sure they’re clear and respectful. Using emoticons or emojis like smiley faces can help.

Staying safe on social networking sites

A few simple steps can help your child stay safe when using social networking sites:

  • Encourage your child to accept friend requests only if she knows the person and is sure of the other person’s identity – that is, if she knows the person really is who they say they are.
  • If your child wants to meet with someone he knows only online and not in real life, discourage it. Talk to your child about internet risks and meeting people he doesn’t personally know.
  • Encourage your child to always report abuse – on most sites, this is as easy as clicking a ‘Report abuse’ button – and to tell a trusted adult about it.

Avoiding cyberbullying on social networking sites

Cyberbullying can happen on social networking sites. It’s when someone repeatedly uses the site’s messages, status updates or other functions to harass, humiliate, embarrass, torment, threaten, pick on or intimidate another person.

Talk your child through possible bullying scenarios. For example, if someone repeatedly says untrue or nasty things about her on Facebook, you could encourage your child to:

  • ignore the behaviour by not responding to the messages
  • block the person
  • report the abuse
  • tell someone she trusts.

If something goes wrong on social networking sites

Things can go wrong on social networking sites, such as someone posting an inappropriate photo of your child.

Here’s what to do:

  • Stay calm and support your child. Work together on sorting out the problem.
  • Focus on trying to remove the content from the site – for example, by selecting the ‘Report this photo’ option displayed below photos on social networking sites. Note that although the photo might be deleted from the site, that doesn’t guarantee its removal from the internet, because it could have been uploaded to other websites.
  • If the photo is offensive or indecent, contact your local police station. Note that the police might be able to act only if there is a criminal offence involved.
  • Together with your child, go through the guidelines about safe and responsible use of social networking sites.
  • Aim for open communication with your child about online behaviour and experiences. If he has any future problems, you want him to feel able to come to you. Ask him if there are any other online issues that he might need your help with.
  • If your child shows a sudden shift in behaviour, becomes very obsessive about using the internet (preferring it to being with friends) or seems depressed or down, talk with her and listen for what’s wrong. If you’re concerned, talk to your GP or other health professional.
  • Last updated or reviewed 12-06-2015
  • Acknowledgements Content in this article was developed in collaboration with Tena Davies, pyschologist.