If my wife and I have children someday, one of my roles as a father will be a social media watchdog. I use the term “social media” to refer to any kind of technology that enables communication and interaction with others, be it Internet, web or mobile.
Right now, there isn’t a whole lot of research or literature on the psychological impact of the Internet and mobile technologies on children. We are already seeing some of the effects though. I’ve seen nieces touch a TV screen, expecting it to be a touch screen. I’ve seen nephews expect instant gratification as quickly as an instant message. I’ve seen friends’ children using a web search to replace their memory of basic facts.
And, I can’t lie – to some extent, I’ve done some of this too. But at least I’m aware of this and try not to let this become a handicap. For young children, however, they don’t have this awareness yet. Such behaviors will shape their entire futures.
Since I haven’t found a single source of the potential issues a child may face when using social media, I decided to amass this list. I’m planning on using this list as a guide for what I may have to teach my children one day. They probably won’t encounter all of these, hopefully, but as a parent, I’d rather be prepared than not.
- The act of publishing too much information about oneself online. There’s a fine line between appropriate sharing and over-sharing. Where that line lies will be a judgement call for each family. At a minimum, I would think child safety is a great line not to cross. There is software for parents that monitors their children’s social media usage as a way of watching out for this too.
- Privacy issues
- Unintentional leaks of your private information to the public. This is in contrast to over-sharing, which is the intentional sharing of your private information. Some organizations may alter their privacy policies, or have weak ones to begin with, putting your private data at risk. The best way to avoid this is to assume that whatever you put on the web will be public one day.
- Cyber bullying
- An extension of bullying, except done online, where taunts and insults can be anonymous, multiplied, amplified, and remain around for a long time, if not forever. When talking about bullying, it may be a good idea to discuss how to deal with both real-life and online bullying, both as a potential bully and the target of a bully.
- Child predators
- Malicious adults who prey on unsuspecting young children. Fortunately, cyber-crime departments of the law enforcement are getting better at nailing these people, but it’s still a concern. Since these predators don’t just operate online, talks about stranger safety should encompass both real-life and Internet interactions.
- Computer security
- Malicious software that can be accidentally downloaded and installed, like viruses and worms. Some teens may be more tech-savvy than their parents and will know all about this already, but young children may not. Anti-virus software isn’t enough; education on how to keep a clean system is also necessary. This includes Internet security issues, such as phishing and insecure public wifi hotspots.
- Social engineering
- Malicious attempts at tricking someone through some kind of social interaction (email, IM chat, text message, face-to-face interaction, etc) to gain access to his/her information. Think of it like a con job, only with social media technology. A healthy level of skepticism and common sense may help, for both children and parents.
- Internet addiction
- An intense desire to be on the Internet, even at the detriment of the other aspects of one’s life: health, relationships, social maturity, etc. There is still much debate over whether or not this is clinically a real addiction, but overusing anything is never a good thing. This can include the social media, the web, video games, and even mobile devices.
- Erroneous information
- Data that is intentionally misleading or unintentionally incorrect. Don’t trust everything you see on the web. To be safe, always go to verified sources or double-check the information. Some older school-aged children seem to be aware of this, but younger children – and parents – may not be.
- Adult activities
- Any kind of media portraying adults in sexual acts. It is surprisingly easy to find porn on the web. Unless you have a parental filter, your children will inevitably encounter it one day, whether it be intentionally on a porn site or unintentionally in a random video chat. Perhaps the best a parent can hope for is that their children will have a healthy & appropriate sexual education.
- Illegal activities
- Actions that break the law. The Internet makes many things surprisingly easy to do, like ordering illegal weapons, hacking into a federal computer system, or unknowingly breaking a foreign law. Children may assume that because something is easy and possible, it’s also acceptable and legal. It may not be.
- Hate groups
- Organizations that exist primarily to evangelize their intense dislike for a particular group of people. Such groups often thrive online. Children may need to be educated about the existence of such groups, especially if they may be influenced by one, or are the target of one.
- Proper grammar and spelling
- Forgetting or not learning proper grammatical constructs and word spellings. It’s quicker to type in shorthand than full sentences. Some technologies, like SMS and Twitter, even have character restrictions, further encouraging the use of shorthand. I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man who’s arguing that grammar & spelling is going downhill, but parents may want to keep an eye on this nonetheless.
- Words that are generally considered to be impolite and unacceptable for children. Though there are many child-safe sites out there, lots of blogs – including mine, I should say – contain profanity. Parental Internet filters will block sites with profanity in them.
- Mean behavior
- Words from people designed to create ill will. This, of course, is something children will face in real-life also, though misunderstandings and miscommunications are more common on the Internet. What is curt to one person is rude to another. Tempers can also run high and inhibitions low. This may be an issue for children who may be overly sensitive or insensitive.
- International interactions
- Encounters with people of cultures foreign to those of your family. Since the Internet is international, children may come across languages, behaviors and mannerisms from people of other cultures. This is a good thing and may provide an opportunity for a parent to teach their children about geography and other cultures, though misunderstandings and miscommunications may occur.
- Dimished social connectedness
- A decrease in the ability to relate to people due to heavy Internet usage. As a potential consequence of Internet addiction, some studies have reported children saying they feel alone and secluded when not using social media. Being without an Internet connection led to withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety. Others have reported a decrease in stranger empathy. Much research still needs to be done on this topic, however.
Again, this is only a swag at a list of potential issues a child may face when using social media technologies. I don’t think technology is inherently harmful. Nor do I intend to frighten parents and make it sound like the Internet is rife with problems. There are a lot of amazing advances coming from technology that will help children, such as education technologies, information access, international awareness, etc.
This list is an attempt to prepare myself for how I may need to educate my children. As with everything in life, there is always the potential to misuse social media technologies in harmful ways. By understanding what those may be, I hope to become a better-educated parent.
What do you think of this list? Did I miss anything? Is an item here really not a big deal? I would love to know what you think; all suggestions welcome. Thanks!