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While many parents find it hard to understand the crazily close relationship teens have with their cellphones and computers, social networking is a crucial part of a millennial’s world. The benefits of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WeChat include being able to initiate social interactions without awkward face-to-face encounters, feeling connected to a larger group, and making contact with those who share your niche and specialist interests. 

That said, we all know the downsides and dangers too. From cyber-bullying to privacy issues and illegal or inappropriate activity, social media can be a minefield for teens and their parents. 

‘It’s vital to nurture an open relationship with your children in order to teach them how to protect their online reputation and themselves.’

Cathy McEvoy, a counsellor at Norman Henshilwood High School in Cape Town, explains that inappropriate texts, images and videos of drunkenness, sexual poses, violence or racist speech spread like wildfire and are difficult to contain. ‘They die down but often reappear during children’s high school careers,’ she says. And children need to understand, once they post an offensive or explicit image online, it is out there forever.

‘Kids are creating a cyber footprint, dropping digital dirt and crumbs,’ McEvoy continues. ‘The images, texts and videos they post may come back to haunt them one day when applying for internships, scholarships, bursaries, access to colleges and university, and even employment.’

Be aware

Ilanit Gerson, an educational psychologist and school counsellor at Yeshiva College in Johannesburg, adds that recent reports suggest parents and youngsters are unaware that taking sexually suggestive, semi-nude or naked pictures and sending them to friends or contacts amounts to the creation, possession and distribution of child pornography – and is punishable by law. ‘Learners as young as 12 are reportedly exchanging salacious pictures and messages via cellphones, and while they think it is fun the consequences can be serious,’ she warns.

McEvoy says some teens become desensitised, often hurting others in the process. ‘They often don’t think about the impact of their messages,’ she explains. The trick to keeping social media activity positive is to ensure kids know what is acceptable when it comes to online etiquette. Monitoring their social media platforms is also key. ‘Parents, educators and online service providers should all be involved in devising and implementing strategies to ensure children are protected online,’ Gerson says. She adds that technology-based tools such as blocking and filtering software are important options, but only in addition to social, educational and industry strategies.

‘Many parents are reluctant to be seen as interfering with their teen’s privacy,’ says Luke Lamprecht, director of the Johannesburg Parent and Child Counselling Centre. ‘I always tell them it’s actually their responsibility to do so. Just as you would intervene if they were acting irresponsibly in real life, you need to intervene if you feel they are acting irresponsibly in cyberspace too.’ 

Start educating 

Educating your kids about appropriate online behaviour goes along with teaching them to use good judgement when using social networking sites. Suggest they ask themselves three questions before tweeting, texting or posting pics online: Are they prepared to have this post on the internet forever? Would they say this to the person’s face? Does this post show how they would like others to perceive them?

‘Discuss the real concerns you have about your child sharing too much private information in cyberspace,’ Lamprecht adds. ‘Explain that some people are out to misuse technology, and insist on privacy settings. Make sure you have passwords to their devices and sites and let your teen know you will be dipping in and out of the social networks to check on their activities.’ 

McEvoy says school kids strive to increase the number of contacts they have on social networks, mistakenly believing this is a sign of popularity. ‘Discourage your kids from accepting friend requests, BBM and WhatsApp contacts from people they have never met in real life,’ she urges. ‘It is frightening how many children accept these contacts and start communicating with strangers, often sharing private and intimate data.’ 

‘Remember, there is no moral authority in cyberspace,’ Lamprecht concludes. ‘It’s vital to nurture an open relationship with your children in order to teach them how to protect their online reputation – and themselves.’

What are they up to?

A recent study conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) and the Youth Research Unit of the Bureau of Market Research at the University of South Africa (UNISA) revealed that:

  • 46.8% of young people between the ages of 12 and 24 had experienced some form of cyber-bullying.
  • 21.46% of high school pupils had been approached with ‘unwanted talk about sex’.
  • 17.79% said they had received e-mails or instant messages with advertisements or links to ‘X-rated’ websites.
  • 16.95% had opened messages or links with pictures of naked people or people having sex.
  • 16.60% had been asked for sexual information about themselves.
  • 14.27% were worried or felt threatened by online harassment.
  • 9.90% said they had been asked to ‘do something sexual’.

DO

✔ Sign up to your child’s favourite social networks and add them as a follower, contact or friend. This allows you to monitor how much time they spend on the platform.

✔ Spend time on the network to understand the types of interactions your child is being exposed to.

✔ Be frank and open. Have regular discussions with your kids about the social media sites they visit, why they choose them and what they gain from them.

✔ Be aware that if your child’s use of a particular platform drops, they may have a second, secret profile. 

✔ Encourage your kids to come to you for help when they are being cyber-bullied or have encountered online predators. 

✔ Explain that geo-tagging adds location information to photos that can lead to unwanted interest and activity. 

✔ Make them aware that posting photos that express ‘pride’ in criminal behaviour will have serious consequences.

DON’T

✘ Let your child register for social media sites until they are 13 (the legal age for Facebook users).

✘ Block or restrict your child’s access to social networks once they are registered as they will simply gain access without your supervision.

✘ Constantly intrude or post embarrassing content to their social media feeds. You’ll be instantly de-friended.

✘ Be lax about showing them how to set the necessary privacy settings.

✘ Forget to check your child’s contacts, friends or followers regularly. If someone’s profile makes you uncomfortable, discuss it openly with your child. 

✘ Be ignorant of cyber-stalking. If your teen has received an unwanted message, instruct them not to respond to it so as not to encourage further messages. Show them how to block the user and/or change their privacy settings to prevent future contact from that person.

Vodacom apps designed for parents

Want to keep an eye on your kid's tech exposure without getting in the way of the their enjoyment? The free Vodafone Guardian app gives you a range of monitoring and management apps to protect them from inappropriate content and help manage their mobile browsing.

Keep track of your family with Vodacom's Look 4 Me location service that transforms their phone into a portable tracking device – with their permission of course – so you'll always know where they are.

Set free parental controls to stop your child from accessing inappropriate adult content on your or your child's device. Just dial *111*123# to activate.

Vodacom Call Sponsor   lets you pay for calls made by a Vodacom Prepaid or Top Up customer through your Vodacom contract. This means the kids can let you know the moment sport gets rained out or they’re running late from their school excursion.

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