Your mum wants to be your friend. Accept or Reject?

16/08/2011 08:38 by

With increasing numbers of children using social networking sites, how do parents feel about their safety and is there anything they, or other parties, such as network operators, can do about it?

Nowadays, each week seems to bring with it a fresh load of news articles and stories about acting safely on the internet and the privacy of our behaviour online. As much as we’d like it to be restricted to just our friends or, in the case of online banking, the company we are paying money to, the personal  and banking details we happily share online always have the possibility of being viewed out of context, and by people we may not know.

Adults rightly feel nervous about this, and such issues have led to Google setting up a new online social network (Google+), to allow us to control more closely who sees our behaviour online. But what does it mean for our children? For as many articles that say children should not be allowed to use social networking sites and the like, just as many say that these sites can, and should, be used to enhance education, personal and social development, and also to allow children to progress in a world which will only become more tech-orientated.

Most recently we have seen the results of a study of 2,000 British parents, by Laptop Magazine[1], announcing that 55% of parents admitted to using Facebook for monitoring the lives of their children – to read status updates and wall-posts, check photos, and the most tech-savvy of parents have even logged onto a friend’s account to gain more access into their child’s digital life.

Chief concerns: British versus American

GfK NOP recently conducted a survey* amongst parents and non-parents, to gauge their opinions and attitudes towards children using the internet. In line with Laptop magazine, 52% of British and 54% of American parents were very concerned that children can be members of social networking sites, compared to only a quarter of US parents and a fifth of UK parents being concerned about children belonging to online school-related communities. So not all online social media sites are bad then.

Supposedly, this is because of the type of information and activities that children can share on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, versus school-related communities. The most concerning feature about using the internet that British adults (parents and non-parents) listed was being exposed to internet viruses. But when it came to children using the internet, the biggest concern named by British adults was chatting or meeting strangers, while American adults said it was being victimised. And these issues are extremely prevalent among the horror stories we read in the press about suicides and physical attacks, following online bullying, and the dangers of meeting strangers**.

Parental actions: British versus American

When asked how parents took action with regard to their children using the internet, American and British parents differed not only in what action they took, but in the amount of action too, with US parents doing more than their British counterparts. Two-thirds (68%) of American parents (in comparison to 52% of British parents) monitor children’s online activity, whereas in the UK the most commonly taken action was preventing access to bank details for use online by children. Despite ‘chatting or meeting strangers’ being the greatest concern for adults, with regards children using the internet, only 35% of British parents put computers in a public place, and only a quarter of parents implement parental control software or activated online filters (26% in the UK and rising to 31% in the US). Similarly, only a quarter of UK parents prevent access online unless under adult supervision (40% in the US) – rising to just 38% for parents with children aged 9 and under. Apart from that restriction of access unless under supervision, it is children aged 10-12 who receive the most protective steps by parents, possibly because at that age children are tempted to explore more outside their comfort zone and start to understand the internet more fully and what access to new areas it can offer.

The dichotomy: parental actions are not living up to parental concerns

What we are seeing from our survey is a contradiction between parental concern and the actions they are taking. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being extremely concerned) three-quarters of British and American parents answered between 6 and 10 for how concerned they were about children using social networking sites. And yet parents are only utilising some measures of control, but by no means all, to protect or monitor children’s online activity. Despite 55% of British parents using Facebook[1] for digital monitoring of children’s activities, advances in technology and ways to use the internet means it is becoming ever more difficult to really know what our children get up to online.

Google+, for all its benefits, can, in fact, act directly against parental supervisions, since contacts in Google+ can be added to a specific “circle” and the user is able to control which circle gets which kinds of information. Even if children don’t block parents from particular circles or filter what they see, it’s completely possible (and likely) that, on Facebook or Google+, they may instead have set up multiple accounts or user names without telling their parents.

Social sites as a learning environment?

Despite the obvious concerns, there are many advocates of children using social media sites. Through early experience with social media sites, as another blogger has pointed out, there is the possibility to learn to use the tools effectively, and to ‘minimise the potential impact of having the chaos of school yard squabbles and teen-learning experiences documented on the Web and broadcast to such large audiences’[2]. So by allowing children on social networks, possibly under supervision, children can socialise whilst educating themselves, through experience, how to safely use social networks.

There may also be an element of parents not wanting to interfere with this ‘learning experience’ and be perceived as ‘snooping’ or ‘spying’ on their children, particularly in today’s society of the right to privacy.

The impact of, and for, Mobile

Even with the potential benefit to kids from being online and the desire to avoid ‘spying’, parents will no doubt remain concerned. And with the rapid and innovative developments in technology – and in mobile technology in particular – there are now even more ways to access the internet, out of sight of parents and schools. This leads us onto the idea that maybe it’s not just the responsibility of parents to protect children online. Should social networking sites join forces with mobile phone carriers or manufacturers to safeguard children’s privacy online? There’s a potential market for network operators in particular to be seen as supporting parents who are wary of their children’s online activity, for example by providing extra services or features to help control online safety. A GfK NOP study has shown that while children tend to choose the handset, it’s the parents who are the most influential in choosing the network for children’s mobiles.

And what about education: even amongst adults, many don’t realise all the extra boxes which must be ticked in order to remain fully secure online and hold completely private social networking site accounts. Even subconsciously, children learn from, and mirror, parents’ behaviour and social skills, and in the era of internet activity, this extends to online behaviour as well.

As we progress into an era of extensive online activity both on the go and at home and work, we must ensure some barriers are put in place alongside better education, not only to protect our own privacy, but that of our children’s. Even if only to avoid that awkward ‘Your mum wants to be your friend’ request.

*GfK NOP study conducted with 920 British and 1000 American adults on 20th-23rd May 2011

**It should be noted that this data was collected before the recent London riots. It would be careless not to mention the role that Twitter and youths played in these events. Technology, when used for the wrong cause, can be dangerous, and thus there remains a strong argument for a development in the education and barriers to prevent such misuse of an otherwise fun and informative service, particularly amongst children.

[1] http://blog.laptopmag.com/more-than-half-of-parents-use-facebook-to-spy-on-kids

2 http://www.liberatemedia.com/blog/blogging/a-social-world-for-our-children-what-is-the-future/

About the author

Anna Parkinson Anna is a Research Executive in the business and technology division at GfK. With a degree in Psychology, she has a curiosity for trends and behaviour, particularly if that means being nosy in what tech people are using, liking and why.

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