Parents should wake up to the impact of a Facebook generation

MARCH 2 — I doubt anyone today who’s connected to the Internet has not heard of Facebook, the social network platform that has over 800 million members. To add icing to the cake, Facebook was plastered all over the news recently due to its planned IPO (initial public offering) — estimated to be worth a whopping US$5 billion (RM15 billion) — which will take place some time later this year.

Much of the news was focused on how much Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and the rest of his high-priced management team, early and current investors, as well as the people facilitating the deal, like the merchant banks, would stand to earn out of the IPO.

While that makes for scintillating reading, my mind was more focused on a story I recently read in a local daily of a case where a 15-year-old schoolgirl was punched and kicked for merely making an “unpopular” comment on Facebook.

The story goes on to say that this incident may very well be the tip of the iceberg of how social interaction online can bring adverse consequences off-line, and that experts say that there may be many unreported cases of online bullying which had led to physical attacks.

“Someone who belittles one’s comments, mocks one’s picture or just pokes fun at a person or that person’s interests can be considered as an act of bullying,” says Associate Professor Dr Muhammad Kamarul Kabilan of Universiti Sains Malaysia. “It may be far-fetched, in most cases, to say that those acts can directly lead to physical bullying, but we cannot completely dismiss the possibility of that happening either,” he says, adding that misinterpreted messages or student rivalry on social networking sites can be the source of depression or physical grief as well.

This particular story hit me harder than usual because of a couple of reasons. The first is because it brings back memories of an expose I covered seven years ago, when I investigated this issue of child online safety in a series of articles which covered the issue of “Where on the Net are your kids?”

Despite writing those stories in a pre-social network world sans Twitter and Facebook, I realise that many of the underlying issues covering child online safety are still the same. These issues can really be divided into three categories, namely, content, commercialism and contact.

Content refers to inappropriate subject matter, such as pornographic materials, racial or hate sites, self-harm sites, and other inaccurate information. Commercialism refers to children being made the subject of direct marketing via the Internet, while contact refers to paedophiles initiating “cyber-relationships” via online chatrooms, otherwise known as “grooming.” This happens when an adult seeks to manipulate children, over a period of time, to finally agree to an offline meeting, with the aim of abusing them. 

One of the key takeaways in my conclusion then was that many parents employ quite a hands-off approach when dealing with the whole online phenomenon, citing amongst the main reasons their inability to understand today’s youth culture and the fact that they believe online activities are relatively safe.

But this can’t, and should not be, reasons to take a hands-off approach, I would argue. The story I cited, and the countless more that don’t get reported, should be lessons for us to take note.

Children receive many messages about personal safety and are often accompanied by a responsible adult in real life. They are, for example, warned not to accept a lift from a stranger on the way to school or non-swimmers are told to stay in the shallow end of the pool,

However, children’s use of the Internet has been based largely upon trial and error, and due to both naivety and complacency, the same kind of protective measures in the real world do not exist in the virtual world.

Put simply, children are often unaccompanied by adults when using the Internet because such technology is considered harmless, and perhaps regarded in the same way as watching television or playing electronic games within the confines of a home. The Internet is normally used in the home, in cafés and at school, all of which are considered relatively physically safe environments.

But the truth can’t be further than that.

Children can be exposed to illegal or other harmful materials, which they are ill-prepared to deal with. For example, these include child pornography, hardcore adult pornography, information about drugs, bomb-making or financial scams, and self-harm sites such as those which promote anorexic and bulimic practices.

Also, children can come into direct contact with, and possibly fall prey to, sexual exploiters. Very often, those who publish harmful or illegal material, such as child pornography, and those seeking to make contact with children through the Internet for illegal or improper ends are one and the same.

Throw in the aforementioned case of cyber bullying which happens on Facebook and Twitter, parents today are faced with myriad of challenges.

The frightening thing is that I find that many parents may be unaware, nonchalant, or worse still, too apathetic about these issues, as well as how to tackle them, until they hit them hard should their children fall prey to one or more of these ills.

The second reason why I’m more affected by this is that I was much further away from it emotionally when I first wrote about such issues. But as my own children approach their fragile teenage years, I’m a lot more mindful about these challenges.

So what can we parents, legal guardians and child minders do about it?

The fundamental thing is to acknowledge that such challenges exist in the first place, and realise that they have the explosive potential to cause harm — physical, emotional, and mental — to our children. After all, admission, they say, is always to first step to action.

Secondly, parents need to move beyond rhetoric — as in get involved in our children’s lives and know exactly what they are doing on these online platforms. This means investing time and effort, something a lot of parents don’t have the luxury too, admittedly, but nonetheless must do for the sake of your children.

Next up is to get educated — no longer can parents say that they are not technology savvy enough to learn about things like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and the like. With the advent of the Internet, Wikipedia and the like, this argument holds no water anymore. Simple knowledge can be picked up just by reading.

For instance, how many know that one of the more fundamental conditions specified by Facebook is that it cannot sign up children below the age of 13? And yet, there are so many children who have accounts on Facebook younger than that! In cases like this, either the parents are oblivious, ignorant, or downright not bothered about such rules.

Meanwhile, I shall drill down more specific steps in my next column as I ponder more about this. But between now and then, parents, if you’re not in the loop, it’s time to get involved.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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