Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A parent's guide to social media

What do parents need to know about their children's Internet use? How much should they control or monitor it? And how can they mitigate risks - or help their children to do so?

I helped facilitate a discussion amongst fathers of pupils at my daughter's (girls) school recently. It was an interesting event. The fathers' concerns and questions were wide ranging:

'Should we embrace social media? And how much should we embrace it?'
'What is age appropriate - for getting a phone, for using social media apps?'
'My young daughter wants to "put things on the net"!'
'Should my daughter share her passwords with us?'
'Time spent on social media sites'
'Can we filter their online exposure?'
'What do I need to know?'
'There's a digital generation gap'
'What about [cyber] bullying?'
'Can we report bullying behaviour to social media sites?'
'What are the good/bad apps?'
'What guidelines are available?'
'When do you let go?'

Most fathers had accepted that social media was an important part of their daughters' lives. They were concerned about risks but most concerned that they didn't know enough to judge risks their daughters.

In spite of frequent stories in mass media of terrible events in children's lives associated with social media,  there was little 'moral panic'. We didn't get to resolve all the issues but preparing for the session, talking with my own children and listening to the discussion leads me to some thoughts about parents and schools roles in their daughters online activities.  There is a list of online resources parents might find useful at the end of this post.

Disclaimer: I've called this post 'A Parent's Guide' meaning one parent's guide. The views here are my own and don't represent those of the fathers present, the school my daughter attends or even those of my wife. And I'm sure they don't represent the views of my children. I conduct research and consult on the Internet, its development and its uses. I'm not an expert on children's use of the Internet and I'm certainly not an expert on other parents' children. Also I've focused on what I've observed in my family and amongst my friends and their children. While a lot of the points here apply widely, the apps I've concentrated on  are the ones that children in my immediate world are using. In my daughter's school, many girls have smartphones. This of course is not typical.  Mxit might well be the most popular app in communities where feature phones (phones without touchscreens) dominate.  

A basic guide to popular social apps

If you know this already then skip to the next section - but from my discussions it's clear some parents don't.

Our daughters and sons (those with access to Internet-connected devices and applications) don't use the same tools as their parents to communicate. Connected (older) adults' preferred tools are voice calls and email. Connected children's preferred tools are instant messaging and social network applications on mobile devices. Where we would speak or write,  they also like to use pictures, video and even music to convey information and feelings. Like us, they want to communicate privately with individuals or small groups but many of them also want (or want to experiment with) more public forms of communication.

The social media tools they use fall broadly into three groups though there is a lot of overlap between them. They can be used one to one (your daughter sends a message or content to one friend), one to many (your daughter sends a message or content to many or all her  'friends' or the public at large) and many to many (your daughter joins in a conversation with many friends and/or strangers). These applications ('apps') have some controls ('privacy settings') over how much users share about themselves (usually contained in 'profiles'); over who can see profile information and how easy it is to find a user and also over who receives or sees their messages or posts.

Instant messaging

In South Africa, the most popular instant messaging tools are BBM, Whatsapp and Mxit. The primary appeal of these apps for young South Africans is that sending messages is almost free compared to the costs of sending SMS text messages. They also have other features:  the ability to send photos and the ability to chat in groups - the text equivalent of a conference call. Amongst children I know, Whatsapp is probably most popular. You can learn about whatsapp here and download the app onto your phone here. You don't have to get someone's permission generally to send them a message if you have their contact information (just like the telephone). Overall, young people tend, (according to my own observations and research) to use these to communicate with their (offline) friends fairly exclusively though that doesn't mean they can't be used to communicate with strangers.

Social Networks

Facebook is the number one social network app in South Africa. Here's a parents' guide. Research from other parts of the world shows a trend of young people becoming less keen on Facebook as their parents' generation join it. However, its still huge in South Africa. It can be used for one to one messaging, but generally, you share posts with all your 'friends'. You have to accept 'friends' for them to have access to your posts (depending on your privacy settings).

Photo sharing

The most popular photo sharing apps (again amongst children I know) are Instagram and Snapchat. These apps let you use your phone to take a picture and then share it with other 'friends' who also have Snapchat accounts. Download a parent's guide to Instagram here and one for Snapchat here. Some children are also sharing video on Vine and YouTube.


Twitter is by default public. Anyone can see your profile and anyone can follow you (though you can block people). In my experience its not very popular amongst school age children. Find a parents guide to Twitter here.

All of these apps have some features in common. They all tend to have 'share' buttons. Generally, even if you receive a message from one person, its very easy to then pass it on to anyone else you know, or even publish it for anyone to see.

Social Media meets an important need

All teenagers need to explore and express their autonomy (especially vs their parents). It may be that our daughters (and sons) have less means to do this in the physical world than we did. What is certain though is that social media is now an important space where this happens.

One of the most well-known and published researchers on young people's use of the Internet, danah boyd, in her most recent book, It's Complicated, makes the obvious but important point that the social, cultural and physical context of our children's lives has changed significantly since we were their age. Kids face more physical constraints on their movement, they may have less contact with friends out of school, they may spend more time at school or in structured activities and they live in a more extensive and complex media world. When I put this to the group of forty or fifty dads at my daughter's school, they recognised this picture. In Johannesburg in particular, children of the well-off face very strict controls on their physical movement. boyd argues that adolescents' use of social media is, in part at least, a response to these constraints. She quotes young people in the US telling her that they would prefer to be face to face with their friends but they had limited opportunities to do this. Social media is what is available to stay in touch with their friends and peers. And for many or most parents of tweens or teenagers, we know that friends and peers are central to our sons and daughters lives.

These social benefits are of course recognised by adults too.  Research in Africa shows that many people value their phones for enhancing their safety and its use for family emergencies. In a country of migrancy, being able to stay in touch with family and friends is something very important and valuable.

The Risks

With all new powers come risks. Every new communication and media  technology - from the telephone early last century, through to television mid century to the Internet and social media in this century - has led to concerns and sometimes full-blown panics about their potential dangers. These include concerns about social norms and values and concerns about individual damage. In the case of children and young people and social media the risks that have been discussed in mass media and in academic literature include:

  • Stranger dangers/predators
  • Cyber bullying
  • Exposure to age inappropriate content (eg sexually explicit or violent)
  • 'Addiction' or anti-social behaviour (kids never getting off their devices, ignoring family)
  • Physical risks of electromagnetic radiation
Other risks, less often cited are:
  • Reputational risk
  • Child Privacy
  • Social Media ‘depression’

Many of these risks are being investigated by researchers (largely in countries where use of social media by young people is more widespread than in South Africa).

Stranger Dangers

There are documented cases in South Africa of girls being befriended online by adults and then abused. Last year a 35 year old man was convicted in Durban of abducting and raping a 14 year old school girl after meeting her online. However, these reported cases are still rare. Risks of sexual abuse in South Africa are very high but according to research abusers are not strangers. They are usually known to the child and family.


The research on cyberbullying has been conducted mostly in the US and Western Europe. The best summary of research I have found suggests that in the US where the vast majority of  teens have access to mobile devices, around one in five children report having been bullied online and one in seven admit to bullying. Girls are as likely or more likely to bully and to be bullied. Most importantly, offline bullying is still more common than cyberbullying and cyberbullying is related (unsuprisingly maybe) to many offline circumstances, just as bullying is. Other research has probed differences between offline and online bullying and has suggested that the distinction between bullies and bullied is much less clear online.

Exposure to inappropriate content

Most societies and parents have clear views of what is, and is not appropriate for children to be exposed to, depending on their ages. The Internet poses a real problem for adults responsible for managing their children's exposure. A major study of European children's online activities found that 14 per cent of 9 to 16 year olds had seen sexual content online and 25% of those who had, reported that they were upset by what they had seen. 40% of parents of those children were unaware of their child's exposure. A significant number of children (15% of 11-16 year olds) also reported receiving sexual messages - text or pictures - from peers.

'Addiction' and 24/7 connection

In South Korea and Japan, there has been much discussion concerning Internet addiction, largely in connection with video gaming (often played over the internet with others). A draft law was debated in in the South Korean parliament last year. The concept of Internet addiction - and putting it in the same group as alcohol, illegal drugs and gambling - is not generally accepted as a medical condition.  But we speak more loosely of 'telly addicts' and many parents I know try to manage and limit 'screen time' - whether on devices, TVs or computers. Some researchers have suggested that increased screen time can lead to increased risk of children becoming overweight. The other concern that I hear from parents of older children relates less to physical or mental risks of too much time online but rather the social risk to family life. Trying to have a conversation with your child while in what used to be called 'the Blackberry prayer' position is frustrating. But bear in mind that they may have experienced the same thing while we looked down at our own screens.

Electromagnetic Radiation

At our fathers meeting, no one raised this but when my son's school first introduced wi-fi some parents were very concerned about it. The World health Organisation has classified mobile phones as 'possibly carcinogenic' (along with coffee and DDT), rather than 'probably carcinogenic' (along with diesel fumes). However children's brains are growing and a number of experts have suggested that it is wise to limit the amount of time that mobile phones are close to children's heads (e.g. next to them in bed overnight while on).


US colleagues I work with in a global network of Internet researchers report that significant numbers of Americans increasingly take the attitude that there is no privacy online and we should all 'just get over it', as a Silicon Valley business leader suggested a few years ago. But for most of us, privacy matters. Research on adult and young people's views on privacy (in the US again, sorry!) has shown that they are similar. But young people are not necessarily any better than adults at guarding privacy and in some ways may be worse. The same study showed that adults thought a company having a privacy policy meant their information was private.


All of us who communicate and engage online leave 'digital exhaust'. Try googling your child's name and you may see some evidence of your child's trail. I wonder whether a future Presidential candidate would be able to tell journalists that he 'didn't inhale' as Bill Clinton said on television in 1992. Today, would there not have been a Facebook entry to settle the matter? Teenagers document their lives in a way that teenagers were not able to do in our generation. A US study of US college recruiters found 13% of them searched online to research applicants.  So just as professionals may monitor and manage their online presences, even ambitious teenagers may face pressure to start doing the same.

Social Media Depression

Some research has suggested that users of social networks  like facebook may become depressed by learning what their friends are up to. A German study suggested this could be connected with envy - that repeatedly seeing your friends having a better time than you could make you dissatisfied with your own life - exacerbated by our tendency on social media to tell our friends about the most interesting things we are doing rather than the most boring. Most of this research has been done with young adults rather than teenagers and it may be that teenagers are not the same. danah boyd has suggested that teenagers often use social media to tell their friends when they are feeling bad to get emotional support. 

Our children may face any or all of these risks to a greater or lesser extent. Unfortunately for parents, there is little definitive evidence on how online risks may or do lead to harm. We know the risk of your child seeing age inappropriate content on-line (e.g pornography) is quite high. We don't know what harm that is causing. A research paper by researcher at Ohio State University reported recently that greater use of violent video games may lead to an increase in violent thoughts and behaviour. The research was immediately criticised by other researchers at Cambridge University for assuming that the direction of causation could only be one way. Did the use of the video games increase violent thoughts or were kids who were more prone to develop violent thoughts tend to play more video games?  Social media is media and over decades this issue has been debated in connection to television: is media reflecting the world or is it making it?

Balancing risks and opportunities  

 A major UNICEF study on children's rights in a digital age published last year argued that all learning opportunities and 'spaces' where children and young adults develop have associated risks. Young children use playgrounds which are opportunities to play,  learn and explore. They are also sites of injuries. The two are not unrelated. Taking risks is part of learning. 

 This generation of children are the first of their kind. Playground design, which has evolved over decades,  now tries to balance risk of injury with opportunity to learn and experience. Online, parents and children may have to be their own experience designers for now at least and strike their own balances of opportunity and risk.

Blaming the Messenger

Take 'Selfies'. Social media and mobile phones have made taking and sharing self portraits much easier than before for many  people. So certainly new technologies enable these activities and the particular structures or features of the apps that our children may use may allow or even encourage particular affordances - abilities - of our children. But that is not the same as saying that they cause these behaviours. Our children are actors in their worlds. There are desires of young people to create, shape and communicate their developing sense of identity, there are cultures that validate these desires (and cultures that don't) and media that may amplify it. And where does the habit of taking 'selfies' come from? Children didn't start it. 

Its even harder to answer the question of harm. Speaking to a psychologist friend, her answer was - well it depends on the child. Another psychologist friend disagreed. But if it doesn't, then the harm is a social and cultural one.  It would be great if it was easy to say that one app is good for our children and another is bad. But once we accept that the device is part of a social context, we can see the risks as sitting in the combination of the child, the device/app and the child's broader social environment.

Technologies are part of the social fabric of our children's lives. Personally I would be a little distrustful of anyone telling parents that they know exactly how dangerous or safe any of these online activities are and of anyone telling parents there is a simple and exact recipe to follow. Life online is not the only aspect of our children's lives that are more nuanced than that.

Judging risks

This is the central question that I think many of us are struggling with. We may understand and accept that our daughters and sons activities entail some risks. We know that our children are not always knowledgable enough or mature enough to judge those risks well. But we also know that we don't know enough to judge the risks.

Closing the knowledge and skills gap

While parents vary greatly in how they are dealing with their children's online lives a common thread of almost all the advice available includes learning something more about it. You can do this by asking your child to show you or you can do some research yourself. I do both.

I think I know quite a lot about the online world and social media apps. But I don't know nearly as much about how children and young people use them and most important, I didn't know much about the online world my own children inhabited until I asked them to tell me more about it. 

This is in some ways a new problem for me. In our household, until very recently, our children accessed the Internet via a computer which was in our living room. Then their online life was far more visible. With tablets and mobile phones this has changed. Without talking with my kids I would be far less aware of what they did. 

What can - and what should - parents do?

I don't know what any other parent should do! But I have thought a little about what our options are. There are three kinds of interventions I think we can make as parents, which are familiar from our engagement with other aspects of our children's lives: we can impose controls and boundaries, we can monitor our children's actions and we can educate them - guiding them and offering them support. Generally many of us would say we use combinations of all these interventions in many aspects of our children's lives. 

Controls and boundaries and developing 'norms'

One aspect of managing risks and safety is to set boundaries. Of course over physical safety we tend to impose pretty strict boundaries on movement etc - in Johannesburg more than many other places. As parents we can set some boundaries around devices and apps  - hours/times of access, age appropriate levels of access to certain apps and content. But to do that we need to decide what we think is reasonable. How do we do that?  In some aspects of our lives we rely on laws and regulations (for example on wearing seat belts) or on  'social norms' (what we understand to be common behaviours or values in our society or community).

The questions I would suggest asking are:

  • At what age do you think you should allow your child to use search engines, or to own an Internet capable mobile device?
  • Are there times when you want to restrict or curtail access?
  • At what age should you allow them to have their own account to an apps store?
  • At what age should you allow them to download their own apps?
  • Do you want to enforce age restrictions on particular apps (Facebook and Instagram have a minimum age for registering of 13 for example), or are you comfortable allowing your child to circumvent these restrictions?
  • Can you live by the rules you set for your children - if they are not allowed their devices at meal times will you not take calls then either?

You may not have clear answers to these questions. You may have had to decide already on 'norms' within your family.  In discussion with other fathers, it emerged that a number of parents had felt forced to make a decision over when to give their daughter a phone by the actions of other parents. 'Everyone in my class has a phone Dad!' (though one father also found that when he had done his own research this wasn't entirely true). We also realised that there would be great benefits in knowing how the parents of our daughter's friends thought about these questions and agreed we would try to do this. As one father suggested, he might not agree with what other parents do, or what rules they set, but at least he would be forewarned when his daughter demanded equal treatment!

Our parenting styles differ. In our house we do set some non-negotiable rules but mostly we try and negotiate them with our children. If you take a similar approach, you might want to consider the child and parent pledges on connectsafely.org (see the resources list at the end of this post) as a departure point for creating an agreement between you and your children on what is and is not appropriate.

Oversight and Monitoring

Some questions you may want to answer for yourself here include:

  • Should you know what applications your child uses?
  • Should you have logins and passwords for you child's account?
  • Should you have the 'right' to monitor any or all of the content on your child's phone?
  • If so under what conditions would you use those rights?
  • Should you friend your child on Facebook or other similar social networks?
  • Should you respond (on Facebook) to their posts?

From ad hoc research I’ve done amongst friends, there is a wide range of views and practices amongst parents concerning monitoring. Some parents allow and support their daughter’s full privacy, others regularly review all the contents on their daughter's devices. And there are many somewhere between these two positions. There is software available to monitor online activity like uKnowkids and Norton Family. But note that espionage may lead to counter-espionage. Just like in the cold war,  spying on your children may well lead to you facing counter-measures and in an online cold war with your child, you may be likely to loose. As importantly, each of us may remember how important privacy was - especially from our parents - when we were young.

There is also the option to agree with your daughter what level of monitoring you and her agree to. (I have copies of all my son's online accounts and passwords but have agreed I wont use them except in an emergency or in a situation where I have reason to be concerned for his wellbeing or safety or that of others and then would only look at the content relevant to the issue that had arisen). One account in the research that has stuck in my mind is a teenager reporting that while she was OK with her mother being her facebook friend, she found it a breach of her social life when her mother responded to her status updates, telling the researcher that as soon as her mother commented, her friends disappeared. This points to how subtle and nuanced these negotiations can and maybe should be to balance our rights to protect our children with their rights to some independent spaces.

‘Learning with’ and guided autonomy

Many of us would have taught our young daughters to look right and left and right again (is that the right way around?) before we let them cross the road. As we became more confident of their ability to understand and make judgments about the road and traffic we generally would have allowed them more autonomy, eventually letting them cross the road on their own. As a very broad analogy, this approach applied to the online world offers a way in for parents I think to engage with their daughters.

For young daughters who are playing on tablets for example, we may think of directly managing their experiences (like holding hands crossing the road).

As they get older (and in many cases as their knowledge of the social media landscape exceeds our own), we can invert the 'right left right' exercise and ask that they demonstrate to us their knowledge and judgment on how to use these applications safely and how to remain safe. When they do, we might expect to allow them more autonomy.

This 'right left right' demonstrated learning could include:

  • Managing their app selection
  • Managing their online identities and protecting their privacy
  • Communicating with strangers
  • What is and is not age appropriate content and knowing how to avoid it

One aspect of such a dialogue  that I think every parent should consider concerns the settings your child adopts on each application they use. There are privacy controls on all social apps and how these are set has important consequences.

Of course our 'norms' will not be the same as those of our teenage daughters. Theirs will be influenced by their circle of friends. But I think what is important is that we have a means to discuss - in some detail - what their norms and judgement and what our norms and judgements are. This enables us to judge the risks better, it enables them to understand our values when applied to the Internet, and it gives us a means of establishing some standards - lines that if our daughters cross they understand they are doing something we do not judge acceptable or appropriate.

But to even start this conversation, we need to learn a lot more about our children's online life and about the tools they are using. I hope this blog may help you on that journey. The discussions leading up to it - with my children and with other fathers - has helped me. As an online banking ad once suggested: 'its so easy even a ten year old can do it. And if you don't have a ten year old ...'  in our case we have our children to ask. And a lot of information available online. I've included some of that in the list of resources below.

As a parent I see all the risks I've written about but as someone who works on and with the Internet every day, I also see the need for our children to learn to manage these risks themselves and, as one of the fathers in our discussion said, we need to see the risks along with the extraordinary opportunities for learning and discovering that the Internet brings to our children.


There is a lot of information and help on social apps specifically aimed at parents. Note that much of it is American, and every country is not the same, also trends change, so today’s hot app is unlikely to be tomorrow’s. If you find other useful resources please comment on the blog and I'll add them.  If you are interested, one of the largest studies on children's online use and the risks was conducted by a group of European researchers led by a team at the London School of Economics. You can read their report here: http://lsedesignunit.com/EUKidsOnline/index.html?r=64. See item 7. below for other research

1. Commonsense media Reviews

This (American) site publishes parents’ and children’s reviews of apps, videos, games and more. It includes basic information about all the popular apps and suggestions about appropriate ages to use them.

2. Material from the application companies themselves
Facebook, BBM and the other social media companies have quite a lot of information available for parents. See their websites and search in FAQs.  See for example this guide from Snapchat

3. You can find links to other guides here:
Instagram guide for parents

Connectsafely.org has a range of parents guides to popular social apps and general guides on security, cyberbullying and more

4. Taking control of privacy settings
Helping your child to set their privacy settings appropriately is one important way you can help them manage online risks. Adjustyourprivacy.com offers guidance and step by step help you and your child to take control of privacy settings on all the common social media sites.

5. An interesting model for a ‘contract’ 
between parents and children on use of mobile devices and applications is also available on their site:

6. Online monitoring software
See this review of available software that mainly deals with facebook but also covers other social media applications.

7. Research on impact of social media on children and adolescents
The most authoritative research tends to suggest that while there are risks there are also substantial benefits to social media applications. It also suggests that while children and teens have an ease with these tools that doesn't mean they are experts (as with other areas of their lives). So they can benefit from your help and guidance.

If you are interested in learning more you can read:
Report from the EU Kids online project which studied children's and teenagers' online use
Report published by UNICEF on Children's rights in the digital age
Report from American Pediatrics Association which includes some general advice

One of the best known researchers on (American) teens and online use is danah boyd. Her recent piece in Time Magazine is worth reading

8. Set up your own accounts
The best way to learn more about the apps your children are using is to try them out. Facebook and Twitter you can sign up from a PC or Mac but for the others you need to use your phone and go to the app store for apple devices, the google play store for android devices or the windowsphone store for windows devices. Download the app (All the ones discussed here are free) and then create an account from within the app. Sign up here for Facebook or Twitter

Downloading the apps onto your phone

From Android Phones (eg Samsung). 

Go to the Google Play store and search for the app or use the links below to take you directly to the apps for download.

From ios devices (apple)

Go to the iTunes AppStore app on your iphone or ipad and then search for the app you are looking for.

From Windows phones (eg Nokia)

Go to the Windowsphone store on your phone and search for the apps or use the links below. BBM and Snapchat are not available on Windows phones at present.
Instagram (beta)

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