Social media has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 79% of teenagers are admittedly spending more time on their smartphones to keep themselves entertained and stay connected with their friends.
In a bid to garner more “likes” or affirmation, many teenagers are posting provocative images of themselves and engaging in risky video “challenges”. Such behaviours not only pose a danger to their health and well-being but also create a negative impact within and beyond their social circles.
Any piece of content posted on social media can have far-reaching influence. Spur-of-the-moment content that teenagers post online could potentially be consumed by more impressionable audiences who may in turn emulate negative behaviours and result in serious consequences.
Visibility is also increased on social media and teenagers can easily get into trouble with their teachers or even the authorities should they engage in and post about such undesirable behaviours.
Such content could also pose long-lasting implications for a teenager since many employers and universities today perform online background checks before hiring or accepting a candidate.
In an incident three years ago, Harvard University rescinded the acceptance offers of at least ten incoming freshmen after discovering that they had shared sexually explicit and racially offensive memes in a private messaging group.
Ultimately, social media is a form of entertainment, connection and much more. Teenagers may find themselves making more friends online and falling prey to scams or sexual predators. They may also unwittingly sabotage themselves by creating a negative digital footprint through their posts and comments.
How then can parents protect their children’s future-selves from their present-selves and how can teenagers protect themselves when making friends online?
In an email interview, Mrs Anita Low-Lim, Media Literacy Council member and Senior Director with TOUCH Community Services, shares with us her insights on how parents can help manage their child’s digital footprint and also how teenagers can better protect themselves online.
1. How can parents communicate instead of lecture their teenagers on the importance of not posting inappropriate content online?
We believe that having a close relationship with your child is the key to effective parent-child communication. With a close relationship and open communication, your teen would be more likely to share his/her experience online and would also be more receptive to exploring conversations on appropriate online behaviour with you.
When communicating with your teenager, it is important to engage them in a two-sided conversation instead of simply taking an authoritarian stance. When parents fall into the habit of dictating what their teen can or cannot do, it may result in the teen withdrawing from their parents.
To engage teens in a conversation, parents can show a genuine interest in their teen’s life by asking about the latest happenings in their life and the social media space such as how TikTok or Instagram works and what they like about it. Showing that you are interested in knowing about his/her life encourages communication and the building of trust and rapport.
We would also highly encourage parents to explore these platforms on your own to help you understand what your teen may be exposed to. Doing so would also help you better identify any unseen risks and potential traps that your teen may not be aware of.
Parents can also take the initiative to have open conversations with their child on their social media activities and the consequences of leaving a negative digital footprint. By discussing these consequences, you are actively engaging your teen to consider the implications of every action that he/she takes online as well as know-how to harness it for good.
For instance, parents can explain that any content posted online forms part of our digital footprint and is often difficult or impossible to remove. Even if your teen has intended to post the content in a private group, the post may be screenshot and shared publicly by others and may result in long-lasting consequences.
In addition, parents should also have conversations about online safety and security with their teenagers. For instance, many teenagers tend to leave their location settings on and use the geotagging functions on various social media platforms without thinking twice. However, this information contributes to their digital footprint and may be misused by cybercriminals for malicious purposes.
To further reinforce the importance of maintaining a safe and positive digital footprint, parents can also try carrying out the simple exercise of Googling each other with their teenagers. Through this exercise, teenagers are often surprised at how much information there is about themselves online and this may encourage them to be more mindful before sharing information in the future.
Should parents find out that their teens have been posting inappropriate content online, they should make the effort to talk to them and understand the reason behind their behaviour before firmly requesting that the content be deleted. Parents should also keep in mind not to shame their teenagers for their actions but guide them towards doing the right thing with love and patience.
Parents may check out more or more tips on managing their teen’s digital footprint, in the full tip sheet by Media Literacy Council (MLC) here.
2. How can parents encourage their teenagers to build a positive digital footprint that will not negatively impact their future prospects?
As parents, it is important to teach our children about the consequences of their actions and to think critically before they act. Now more than ever, our online activities will determine not only our digital reputation but can also impact the impression we make on potential employers or university admission officers.
Social media has transformed the recruitment processes of businesses and educational institutions, with more employers and universities performing online background checks before hiring or accepting a candidate. In a 2018 survey by US recruitment agency CareerBuilder, it was found that 70% of companies in the US now use social media to screen candidates as part of their hiring process.
Closer to home, a 2012 survey by JobsCentral revealed that 3 in 4 employers in Singapore conduct online research on job candidates, particularly on LinkedIn and Facebook. We can only imagine that this trend has increased over the years. Especially during and beyond this pandemic, when job interviews and recruitments are taking place virtually, our teen’s social media and online activity have become their public resume.
Should a teen post inappropriate or offensive content at the spur of the moment, he or she will leave behind an unpleasant trail that future employers could find via a quick online search. Our online information is difficult – or almost impossible – to remove, so it is best to minimise any risks of posting such information in the first place.
Parents can encourage their teenagers to leave a positive digital footprint that protects their present and future selves while contributing to a better Internet environment by considering these tips recommended by the MLC:
- Post positively
While we often come across mean and nasty comments online and may have differing views and opinions from someone else, there is never a need to be disrespectful or insulting. Instead of posting negatively, parents should encourage their teenagers to communicate in a civil and respectful way.
In addition, parents can also encourage their teen to post more positive content online by encouraging them to write a positive review and share useful recommendations after a good experience in a café or restaurant.
- Exercise empathy
While it may be easy to jump on the bandwagon to join the online mob in publicly shaming an individual for their bad behaviour, this creates a cycle of negativity. Although we may be separated by a screen, parents should remind their teenagers that the person they are addressing online has feelings and emotions too and that they should exercise empathy with their words.
By encouraging teens to treat others the way they would like to be treated and posting supportive comments online, it not only creates a positive digital footprint for themselves but makes the Internet a better place as well.
- Think before sharing
Any content that is posted online is often difficult to remove and may often resurface years later. To help teenagers cultivate the habit of thinking before sharing anything online, one question that they can ask themselves is: how would someone who doesn’t know me think of me if they saw this?
If the answer is not favourable, then the content may not be the most appropriate. In the heat of the moment, teenagers may not fully comprehend the long-lasting implications that their post or comment may have and end up unwittingly sabotaging themselves by leaving undesirable digital footprints. Hence, it is useful for parents to encourage them to develop this habit as they venture in the online space.
3. What are some tips for teenagers to establish safe online friendships on platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, Douyin, Discord and gaming platforms? What should teenagers be wary of when establishing such online friendships?
There is no sure way to tell if someone is a “safe” online friend, especially when you have never met them in real life. There is no definitive pattern in the way perpetrators operate as well, and this will differ from platform to platform. Groomers usually utilise manipulation tactics such as flattery or appeal to the youth’s sense of empathy to gain their victim’s trust over time.
Take gaming as an example, groomers often interact with youths and build rapport with them by going through “thick and thin” together during the game. By frequently offering to give youths precious game items to increase their rankings in the game, groomers can slowly but easily win their victims over without the need for elaborate manipulation.
For social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, groomers can gain the attention of the youth by liking the youth’s photos or leaving flattering comments before attempting to establish a relationship with the teenager by leaving them a direct message.
➡️ Related Read: How to Be a Better Parent: Keeping Our Children Safe Online
Ultimately, while it may be difficult to ascertain who is a “safe” friend online, teenagers and their parents can look out for certain red flags. For example, online predators may often ask their victims a lot of questions to learn more about them. They may also utilise a tactic known as “mirroring” and constantly agree with their victims in order to establish a closer affinity and get their victims to lower their defences.
Online predators may also dismiss the victim’s other relationships, telling them to distrust their family and friends, and make uncomfortable sexual comments to their victims.
While it is common for groomers to lie about their age and assume the identity of a fellow youth to lure their victims in, there are others who are honest about being older simply to give victims the false impression that they are honest and not a threat.
In addition to being wary of red flags, teenagers should also ensure that they do not share their personal information, such as their school, address or phone number to anyone they befriend online. Parents should also educate their teenagers on setting boundaries to protect themselves from inappropriate sexual advances and physical contact.
As our children spend an increasing amount of time online due to pandemic safety measures, it is imperative that parents are well-equipped to properly safeguard their children’s safety and wellbeing. The MLC’s website carries a range of resources for parents to help them educate their children on topics such as online sexual grooming, cyberbullying and online scams.
4. How should our children respond when they encounter online sexual predators?
Online grooming can happen to anyone and it often starts innocently enough that red flags are not raised. According to the inaugural 2020 Child Online Safety Index (Cosi) report by DQ Institute and Singtel, 17% of children aged between 8 and 12 years old and 31% of teenagers aged between 13 and 19 years old have had risky contact via the internet, which involves offline meetings or sexual contact with strangers they met online.
For parents, this can be especially concerning given that the chances of our children meeting and interacting with strangers online have increased due to them spending more time online during the pandemic.
Here are some pointers that parents can share with their youths should they suspect that they are being sexually groomed by someone online:
1. Cease all communication immediately. To prevent any further inappropriate sexual advances from the groomer, all communication with the person should be stopped immediately.
2. Take screenshots as evidence. Teens can take screenshots of the groomer’s ID/username as well as evidence of the sexual messages before blocking him/her online. This evidence would be necessary should a police report need to be made.
3. Report the user on the platform. If possible, teens should report the account of the online sexual groomer immediately on the platform that they were communicating on.
4. Speak to a trusted adult about what happened. Parents should encourage their children to speak to them should they feel uncomfortable or distressed by any conversation or interaction they have had online.
By developing an open relationship with their children and encouraging them to talk to a trusted adult any time they are caught in such a situation, parents will be able to step in and provide support before the situation worsens.
If youths are unsure if they are a target of an online sexual groomer, they may call the counselling helpline TOUCHline at 1800 377 2252 (Mon – Fri, 9 am – 6 pm) to find out more or seek support.
If sexual grooming is suspected, we would recommend that parents make a police report on the incident. Parents are also recommended to secure the devices (mobile phones, computers or tablets) where most of the online interaction occurred, and take screenshots of the conversations, as these will provide the necessary evidence for the police.
For further resources on such parenting guides and tips, parents can check out MLC’s webpage.
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