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Social media is the name for a number of digital platforms that can each be used to share many forms of content instantly online. What you share becomes public information instantly, and has the power to reach millions of users depending on your use of platform features. Social media platforms are accessed online through their individual websites, but each platform also has its own application that can be downloaded onto a mobile device with optimised features.
This gives the platforms the portability to be accessed whenever you have your device to hand. Although there are age restrictions in place, ultimately, anybody could create a social media profile if they have access to the internet and an email address to create the profile.
Social media has reshaped the norms of our society. Since the creation of Facebook (the first social media platform) it has transformed society’s access to information, opinions and entertainment with ease like never before. Facebook offers benefits for many aspects of life. You can speak to friends or family instantly for free; no matter where they are across the world.
This has been especially rewarding through the coronavirus pandemic, allowing many people to stay in touch with their loved ones during restrictions. It is interactive and entertaining, providing space to learn from others and find valuable opportunities.
However, each positive aspect comes with an element of risk. It is extremely important that people understand the negative impacts of using these digital tools, especially when children are using the platforms. This is because the social media can place users in a vulnerable position, making them at risk of becoming a victim of crime, of being exploited, or of damaging their mental health and wellbeing.
Facebook safety will be discussed in greater detail below, to support parents on Facebook to protect their children online.
What is Facebook?
Facebook was invented in 2004 by a Harvard University student in America, called Mark Zuckerberg. He initially invented the platform to use as a social tool within his own university, to keep in touch with other students. However, it quickly gained traction across other schools and colleges in America, before becoming a public platform worldwide in 2006.
It has grown immensely since then, with 2.74 billion monthly users worldwide! The platform started as a place to connect with friends online, but as it has grown in popularity its features have increased.
We have included a simple guide to Facebook below, to outline all of its functions (an internet connection is required to use all of Facebook’s features):
- Connect with people
– You can send direct messages to Facebook users (similar to a text message). Within these messages you can send text, images, GIFS, videos, website links and voice notes for free.
– You can write a status to share what’s on your mind. Within this feature you can include text, photos, videos, feelings, GIFs, as well as tag other users that you are friends with in your status.
– Share your location by using the ‘check in’ feature.
– Host a Q&A session.
– Share a live video of yourself or view other people’s using the ‘live’ and ‘stories’ features. With this you can see what friends, family or even celebrities are doing in real time or on that day.
– Interact with the content that yourself or other users have posted. You can like, comment or share things that you enjoy on the platform, and also see the opinions of others.
– Create a room of Facebook users to interact with.
- Play games
– Facebook has a games feature where you can play games on your own, or against other Facebook users.
- Share media
– You can share text, website links, videos, images and other people’s Facebook posts onto your profile page.
– You can learn from some of the content that is shared on Facebook (depending on the type of content and topic shared). Facebook has a ‘news feed’ page whereby you can view content that has been produced or shared by other users. This content can include text, articles, website links, photos and videos.
- Be entertained
– On the ‘news feed’ many people share entertaining content such as funny videos.
– Facebook has a ‘marketplace’ feature where you can add sales listings or contact sellers to organise the purchase of an item. Facebook does not offer the protection of other selling platforms through this feature.
Facebook guidelines state that the minimum age required to sign up to the platform is 13 years old. However, there is no proof of age required to create a profile, meaning that a child could lie about their age to create their own profile (however, if Facebook become aware of a profile of an underage child, they will delete the account).
As there is no proof of identification required to sign up to Facebook it can lead to potential risk of criminals creating a Facebook profile and using the platform to maliciously target children. This will be discussed further into this guide, along with the other dangers.
What are the dangers?
Social media is not without its negatives. Facebook is a powerful tool and holds a vast amount of data about each of its users. If a user is unaware of how to use the platform safely, and use the security features effectively, it can place a person in great danger. Children can be at particular risk on the platform if they are unaware of the dangers that Facebook can present.
That is why is it important for parents to engage with their children about using the technology, and to understand how the platform works to minimise the risk.
Some of the dangers of using Facebook include:
- Oversharing information – You can share anything about yourself on Facebook. Once content is shared on the platform, it could be found publicly. That means that somebody can save your content directly onto their own personal device. Even if you later decide to delete the piece of content from your profile, that person will still have their own copy. Oversharing information also includes sharing your address, location or other personal information. For example, if you share that you are away on a family holiday, it could risk criminals knowing that your house is empty. Without careful consideration of what information you put onto your Facebook page, your personal information could be found by anybody anywhere in the world.
- Social isolation – As all interaction on Facebook is from behind an electronic device, it can cause a child to become more withdrawn in real-life social interaction. This is a particular risk if an extensive amount of time is spent on Facebook. This also creates a risk of your child becoming less active in their day-to-day lives through becoming addicted to the online world.
- Cyber bullying – Social media has given rise to cyber bullying, whereby people can send unwanted messages to you as a way of bullying you. These could be directly onto your child’s profile page, via direct messenger, or by tagging your child in unwanted content. This can be extremely distressing because it means that a child can be bullied even when they are in the safety of their own home. In 2020 the Office for National Statistics found that 1 in 5 children aged 10 to 15 years old, had been victim to online bullying, which exemplifies how prevalent cyber bullying can be.
- Risk of grooming – There are instances of fake profiles on Facebook, where a person is not who they claim to be. This means that somebody that claims to be a child could actually be an adult, and lie about their identity to groom a child. Facebook could be used as a tool by paedophiles, drug dealers, stalkers, burglars or extremists.These people conceal their real identity on the platform to help them build a relationship with a child, before exploiting them and placing them at risk of harm. The main risks of grooming online are sexual grooming or radicalisation.
- Exposure to explicit content – As with the internet in general, Facebook is a huge platform with endless amounts of content available. Although Facebook does have censoring procedures in place, these are not always effective due to the volume of content to check. This means there is a small chance that your child could be exposed to explicit content of a violent or sexual nature.
- Mental health and wellbeing – Facebook gives you unlimited access to information that, at times, can be overwhelming. It can inflict feelings of pressure to look at everything available, or influence what you share or how to ‘fit in’. Constant exposure to other people’s lives can evoke comparison and lower self-esteem and confidence. The portability of the platforms has created a culture of being available all of the time, which can feel draining and affect your mental health. It can provide unlimited access for people to contact you, even when this is not wanted (such as cyber bullying).
How can I ensure that my child uses Facebook safely?
Despite the risks explained above, there are many ways to promote Facebook safety to ensure that your child is safe online. Child safety online is just as important as child safety offline, and there is support available to help keep your child safe, from organisations such as the NSPCC.
We have also included some tips for parents on Facebook below:
Know how to make a Facebook page private
Facebook has privacy settings that can make your child’s Facebook profile more secure. The privacy options include private, friends only, friends of friends, or everybody. Retrospectively this means that your child’s Facebook profile can only be visible to themselves, their Facebook friends, their Facebook friends and friends of friends, or anybody who has a Facebook account. These privacy settings apply to the content on your child’s profile, as well as being visible in a Facebook search.
Use the block feature
There is a block feature that can be used to block specific profiles from accessing your child’s Facebook. If your child experiences cyber bullying you can block the account so that they will no longer be able to contact your child through Facebook. Blocking means that the person will not be able to find your child’s profile anymore, even when they search for their name.
Discuss appropriate content with your child
Before your child completes their Facebook sign-up you can talk to them about good and bad things to share. Explain that talking to somebody on Facebook is no different to talking to somebody in the street, as this will help your child make the right decisions when information sharing on the platform.
This can be applied to the following scenarios:
- People who might add them as friends – If they do not know the person, they should not accept the friend request. This is the same as talking to a stranger in the street.
- Giving out your personal details such as your address and phone number – Your child would not give these details to anybody in public so they should not put them on Facebook. This also applies to any private information they know about other people.
- Photos and videos – Explain that your child should not share any images of their body in a sexual nature as your child’s photo can be saved by other people (even after your child has deleted the content).
- Accepting invitations – There are many groups, events and chat rooms that your child could potentially be invited to join on Facebook. When explaining this to your child, ask them to consider if they would respond to the invitation in real life and when they would require parents’ permission. The same rules should apply on Facebook.
Understand how your child uses Facebook
A great way to check your child’s Facebook safety is by using the platform with them. Ask your child to show you what they enjoy about Facebook so that you can check that it is age appropriate. By taking interest in your child’s online space, you can build a positive relationship around using Facebook which will encourage your child to come to you with any concerns.
Be a positive role model
If you are a parent with your own Facebook profile you can ensure that you are practising Facebook safety on your own account. Your child is likely to follow your lead, so by setting a good example your child can follow your positive online behaviour. There are also online tools that can teach your child about the safe use of social media at an age-appropriate level they can understand. One organisation, called ‘Think U Know’, offers resources for parents and children about staying safe online.
How do I report?
Facebook has a set of community standards which are rules that explain what is, and is not, acceptable to share on the platform. The standards support Facebook safety by helping to ensure that everybody has a positive experience using the platform. If you experience a negative Facebook profile or piece of content, you can report this directly to Facebook for investigation.
If Facebook finds the profile or content that you have reported goes against its community standards, Facebook will take action against the account. You can report a piece of content directly from the page that you viewed by clicking on the three dots next to the content. This will present a drop-down menu with an option to report.
The three dots menu will also be available at the top of a person’s profile page, to report the entire profile, as well as on the direct message page, to report an inappropriate message. As well as reporting to Facebook, there are options to ‘unfollow’ and ‘unfriend’ a person, so that you no longer see their content or profile on the platform.
Reporting concerns to the police
As well as reporting directly on Facebook, unfortunately there are instances that will require police involvement. There are criminals that use social media as a tool to commit crimes, so the police should be contacted when abusive online activity includes threats of a violent nature, sexual content, hate crime or harassment.
This communication on social media should not be minimised just because it happened online; the police will still classify these incidents as a criminal offence. Data from several freedom for information requests sent to police forces found that in 2020 crimes related to Facebook had risen by 19%. The Crown Prosecution Service explain the different types of social media offences in more detail on their website.
If you, or your child, receive abusive, harmful or threatening communication or content online, you can report it to your local police department through their online channels, or by calling 101 (please dial 999 when there is imminent harm or danger to life). If you do have to report Facebook activity to the police, ensure that you keep any message or content history to give to them as evidence in their investigation.
Although uncommon, there are instances of serious crimes occurring on Facebook. You should always be vigilant and ensure that you continue to encourage your child to be aware and tell somebody if they experience or witness abusive online behaviour, or feel scared or threatened online.
Serious crimes can be easily instigated by criminals online as a way to groom children into engaging with them. One example of a serious sexual abuse crime involved an adult man, who was posing on Facebook as a child girl. He pretended to be a child girl on the platform to groom, exploit and blackmail 500 child victims. The full details of the crimes can be read here.
This example highlights the severity of online grooming and shows how important it is for parents to understand what their child is using Facebook for. Facebook can be a very positive space for children to communicate, learn, play and have fun; as long as the appropriate safety measures are utilised and monitored continuously.