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Social networking sites are a big part of most teenagers’ social lives. You might worry about what your child is doing on the internet, but being part of the online world has its advantages, and you can help your child make the most of them.

Teen girl using a computer

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Of teenagers aged 12-16 years, 94.9% have used a social networking site. Of that group, 93.4% have used Facebook.
  • Over a third (33.4%) of students in years 7-10 surveyed in a recent study said that social networking is ‘very important’ to them.
 

The basics

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

Teenagers use social networking websites such as Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram to:

  • create a page with an online profile
  • post comments on their own and other people’s main profile spaces or timelines
  • upload photos and videos, in which they can tag other people, or be tagged by others
  • send and receive messages
  • chat using instant messaging
  • join or follow interest groups.

What teenagers get from social networking sites

The biggest benefit teenagers get from social networking is a sense of connection and belonging to their friends and peers. It also gives them opportunities to develop and express their identities.

Teenagers use social networking sites to let friends know what they’re doing and how they’re feeling. They can also broaden their social groups by connecting to their friends’ other friendship groups. Keeping in touch with friends and family across long distances and time zones is another bonus.

Then there’s online chat, a central part of many teenagers’ social lives. They use this feature to make social arrangements and talk about things that are important to them.

Overall, social networking sites are like an extension of face-to-face interactions, and work a lot like long telephone conversations with friends.

Research shows that when teenagers get positive feedback on social networking sites, it boosts their self-esteem – but when they get negative feedback, it lowers their self-esteem.

Risks of social networking sites

Social networking can have traps for teenagers, who are sometimes more likely to do risky things and often want to do what their friends are doing.

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.

Safe and responsible use of social networking sites 

You can’t keep up with everything your child is doing online every day. But you can establish guidelines with your child about safe and responsible use of social networking sites.

It’s a good idea to get to know the sites your child is using. Ask him to show you what sites are popular or how parts of his favourite site or app work, or to explain to you what teenagers like to do online. Avoid directly asking to see his social networking page, because he might feel you’re intruding.

Teenagers like to feel that they’re more knowledgeable and can teach their parents things. All of this can pave the way to talking with your child about her social networking activities.

Getting your own social networking page will also help you get to know and understand the process of social networking. 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.

 Responsible use

  • 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 some guidelines with your child about when it’s OK to use social networking sites. For example, you might both decide that the chat feature needs to be turned off when it’s time to do homework. 
  • Negotiate with your child about what’s an appropriate amount of time to spend online. Software programs that can 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 a contract that covers internet or smart phone use. 
Privacy
  • Your child will have a profile on each social networking site he uses. Talk with him about what personal information is OK to include in an online profile – for example, it’s not a good idea for him to share his school, phone number or date of birth. It can also be a good idea to have a profile picture with more than one person. This will let his friends clearly identify him, but it makes it more difficult for people he doesn’t know.
  • Regularly check the privacy settings on social networking sites, then ask your child to update her page accordingly. Facebook occasionally changes its default privacy settings, sometimes revealing more private information than users had intended. Note that Facebook’s default privacy setting allows everyone on the internet to see your child’s photos, videos and status updates – not just the people who are friends with your child. Privacy settings can be adjusted to allow only direct friends to see them. But if someone else tags your child in a picture, that person’s privacy settings apply to the image. 
  • Your child should keep his passwords and log-in details private and secret from his friends. He should also make sure he logs out after using public computers, such as at a library. 

 Inappropriate content and comment

  • Talk with your child about considering her reputation and those of her peers when uploading photos and making comments. Encourage her to think carefully about any comments, images or videos she wants to post. Ask her to think about whether there would be anyone who might be offended by the post or use it to humiliate or bully her or someone else. As a general guideline, if your child wouldn’t do or say something in front of a live audience, she shouldn’t put it on her page. This also goes for images, videos and information about friends.
  • Your child should be aware of the consequences that might occur if he posts provocative or embarrassing photos of himself or others online. He might also like to think about what might happen if he poses for inappropriate photos in real life, such as at parties. Read our article on sexting for more information.
  • Encourage your child to be careful with photos that she uploads. Some phones and cameras add data to the photo that identifies where it was taken. Switching off location services in the phone’s settings will stop this.
  • Text messages can be misinterpreted because you haven’t got social cues such as facial expression, tone of voice or body language to help you. For example, jokes can easily be misinterpreted. Encourage your child to read through his messages before he sends them to check they’re clear and respectful. Using emoticons like smiley faces can help others understand what he means. If someone does get offended, encourage your child to phone the person, rather than sending another text.
  • Keep in mind that anything your child uploads onto the web can be considered permanent – years from now, someone with the right skills could find information or images your child has put up. 

Safety

  • Try to be open and approachable. Be aware of online safety yourself and discuss it with your child to share what you each know.
  • 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.
  • Encourage your child to keep privacy settings up to date for sites that let her post where she is – for example, when ‘checking in’ at a café or shop.

Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying can happen on social networking sites. It’s when someone repeatedly uses the site’s online chat, 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 him 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 he trusts. 
For more information, read our article on cyberbullying. You can also read more about how to be a safe and responsible cybercitizen.

If something goes wrong

Things can go wrong on social networking sites, such as someone posting an inappropriate photo of your child on Facebook or another site. Here’s what to do:
  • Stay calm and support your child. Think through strategies to fix the problem with your child.
  • Focus on trying to remove the photo from the site. You can do this by selecting the ‘Report this photo’ option displayed below photos on social networking sites. Note that although the photo might have been 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 above about safe and responsible use of social networking sites.
  • Aim for open communication with your child about online behaviour and experiences. If she has any future problems, you want her to feel able to come to you. Ask her if there are any other online issues that she might need your help with. Often children will open up about other issues when they realise their parents are there to protect them.
  • 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 him and listen for what’s wrong. If you’re concerned, talk to your GP or other health professional.
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  • Last Updated 31-05-2013
  • Last Reviewed 30-05-2013
  • Acknowledgements Content in this article was developed in collaboration with Tena Davies, pyschologist.
  • de Zwart, M., Lindsay, D., Henderson, M., & Phillips, M. (2011). Teenagers, legal risks and social networking sites. Melbourne: Monash University. Retrieved September 16, 2011, from http://newmediaresearch.educ.monash.edu.au/moodle/pluginfile.php/2117/mod_label/intro/SNSandRisks_REPORT.pdf.

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    Social Networking (2010). Retrieved October 26, 2010, from http://www.digizen.org.uk/socialnetworking.

    Subrahmanyam, K., & Greenfield, P. (2008). Online communication and adolescent relationships. Future of Children, 18(1), 119-146.

    Valkenburg, P., Peter, J., & Schouten, A. (2006). Friend networking sites and their relationship to adolescents’ well-being and social self esteem. Cyberpsychology and Behavior: The Impact of the Internet, Multimedia and Virtual Reality on Behavior and Society, 9(5), 584-590.