Tips on how to keep your kids safe on social media sites

Psychotherapist and author Anne McCormack says children under the age of 12 lack the psychological maturity to deal with social media

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Young children do not have the skills to cope with complexities of social media websites

I AM a big fan of social media but I feel very strongly that it is causing harm to our young people. 

From images of young people in compromising sexual encounters in the local disco being shared like a virus for the whole school community to see, to the impact on young teens of following ‘stars’ who bombard them with images of how they ‘should’ look in order to be popular, the social media world has its dangers.

Despite this, I believe in its positive force to do good; its power to allow the sharing of information online such as that shared by a number of people on sites such as the well-being movement, A Lust for Life.

But being a fan of social media does not make me any less certain in my view that the social media world is not a safe place for young children to inhabit.

There are lots of options out there for children to engage with technology without having to be on social media sites. 

The coding movement is one example. It is hugely beneficial for children to learn to code and have fun doing this online. 

There are many downloadable games which are appropriate and fun for children to use, but social media sites are not suitable for children under the age of 12.

During the primary school years, children are simply not psychologically mature enough to handle social media well. 

Keeping Your Child Safe on Social Media, Five Easy Steps by Anne McCormack is published by Orpen Press, €15

According to Erik Erikson (1902-1994), the developmental psychologist best known for his theory on social development, children from the age of five to 12 face the task in their mind of ‘trying to work out the social rules of engaging with other people’. 

I believe they need to be free to work out this task without the complexity of social media entering their world. 

There is a reason why primary school age children are supervised in the school yard while they interact socially with each other — it reflects their level of ability when it comes to socialising.

Why then is it the case that so many young children are allowed to be social on sites such as Instagram and Snapchat that have an age restriction of 13? 

Part of the reason is tablets, smartphones and other internet-enabled devices are widely available but another reason is that parents, unaware of the danger of young children accessing social media sites, are feeling pressure to keep up with the crowd. 

While it may be uncomfortable to admit it, some parents just simply don’t want to be the only parent saying no to their child going online to start a social media profile. 

The pressure is from other parents, and not wanting to be perceived as the ultra-strict one who always says no.

We need to ask ourselves this: if our 10-year-olds started asking for the family car to drive around town, would we hand over the keys just because other 10-year-olds were driving? Absolutely not, because the danger would be apparent and so we would know to say no. 

This may seem like an extreme example but while the danger for young children online can seem pernicious, it can be real and stark too if your 10-year-old suddenly gets into an online relationship with someone considerably older who means them harm. 

It’s best not to take the risk. There are alternative options for children whom parents feel should be contactable by phone, perhaps because the child is now walking to school alone. The newly relaunched Nokia 3310 is a viable option for a child.

As children grow through the primary school years, they begin to gain awareness of social media. 

Words such as Facebook or Snapchat become part of their vocabulary and children expect that they will use social media at some point as they approach adolescence.

Many parents have never experienced social media as an adolescent. 

As adolescence draws near, young people begin to show increased curiosity and interest in the social media world. This interest and curiosity can be felt more intensely or at a younger age by some children, depending on the child’s circle of friends and what is perceived to be ‘normal’ behaviour within their own peer group.

To cope well with social media, young people need psychological strength and resilience. With this, young people are much better able to cope when times get tough. 

This psychological strength puts the young person in charge of how they see and interpret things, how they think. They think in a way that makes them feel good about who they are.

YOUNG people can easily navigate social media sites but need a different set of skills to cope with issues such as the cyber-bullying, the experience of being excluded or not ‘liked’, or comparing themselves unfavourably over and again to others.

Sometimes the greatest enemy to a person’s good mental health can be inside their own mind, so young people need to be tuning in to where their mind is at and building up strength there. 

An old African proverb states: ‘If there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do no harm.’ Hence the need for psychological strength in order to stay happy and confident.

As a psychotherapist I have seen many young people who end up in difficult situations online. Often young people are at crisis point by the time they say how difficult things are for them. 

I know that increasing their level of psychological strength means they are better protected from ever reaching crisis point in the first place.

Parents need to consider that children and adolescents think differently to adults and that is because they are at a different stage of development.

In a study carried out by Ofcom, young people were found to be totally trusting of everything they saw on the web, and not able to decipher between fiction and fact. Adults are generally more discerning when it comes to what they believe. 

It is an example of how children can be potentially put at risk, because of their less developed (and therefore not adult) minds.

Between the ages of five and 12, children face a particular question in their mind but they don’t realise it’s there. 

According to Erikson, the question they try to work out unconsciously is: ‘Can I make it in this world of people and things?’ 

This is quite a broad question for a child of this age and the school environment and a child’s experience of friendships are two of the things that help children work their answer out. 

Introducing social media during this stage of development complicates this process.

It can be extremely difficult for children of this age to take on the complexities of social media.

In my practice, I see many children really struggle, for example, children in primary school who become so obsessed with getting followers on their YouTube channel that they begin to lose social skills because they are spending so much time alone making videos and becoming self-absorbed. 

If children have freedom from social media, they face the psychological task in a less burdened way. They will be more likely to manage social situations in the ‘real’ world as they won’t have the added complexity of having to manage interacting with people in the ‘cyber’ world too. 

And managing social relationships in the cyber world can be hard, with no facial expressions to help a child interpret tone; even teens and adults find this hard at times.

Because children do not know they are facing this ‘task’ in their mind, it is up to us adults to keep it in mind.

Parents want what is best for their children. Is it best that they socialise online under the age of 12? I think not.

  • Keeping Your Child Safe on Social Media, Five Easy Steps by Anne McCormack is published by Orpen Press, €15

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