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The secret social life of our children

Tips for parents about Facebook, cyberbullying and smartphones
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

We tend to assume adults or teenagers are the main users of social networking sites like Facebook.

However, despite being below the minimum age requirement, a 2016 survey for the BBC found that more than three quarters of UK 10-12 year olds have social media accounts.

However up-to-date and technically aware we think we are, our children probably know more about social media than we do.

And it isn’t just on traditional home computers. There are tablets too – and 9 out of 10 children now have a mobile phone – many with apps and internet access.

It's easy to lose control of what our kids see and do in the world of social media. They may be living in a parallel universe of status updates, instant messaging and chatrooms that we know little or nothing about.

It's not all bad - far from it. There's no doubting the benefits of modern technology. Giving us and our kids access to a whole world of knowledge and social media can be a fabulous way to connect with friends and family.

So what is the best way to give children boundaries and show them how to take care and protect themselves?

Social network sites

When your 11-year-old daughter tells you everyone in her class is on Facebook and she's being left out because she's not, what do you do? Say it's against the rules of the site and you have to be 13 to join? Or let her lie about her age and create a fake profile so she doesn't feel left out at school? It's a tough call.

It seems some parents are giving in, if the latest figures are anything to go by. In a recent report looking at British children in 2011, Mintel found half of all children aged seven to 12 visit social networking websites and nearly half (49% or an estimated 0.97 million) of those, go on Facebook "every day".

Ina Mitskavets, senior lifestyles analyst at Mintel, says: "Perhaps joining Facebook is viewed as a rite of passage into secondary school and an absolute must-have for entering the social scene and maintaining social circles."

Facebook and other social networks are signed up to a voluntary policing regime that is supposed to prevent the under-13s from becoming members, but many parents don't enforce this and often children create fake profiles with or without parental knowledge.

Keep things private

Let's say your child is 13 and has a social network account. The first thing to do is fine-tune their settings so only friends have access to their page.

To do this on Facebook, go to the "Privacy Settings" link under "Settings" at the top right-hand corner of any page.

Make sure all the menus under "Profile" and "Search" are set to "Only Friends", meaning that only friends your child has approved can access his profile, photos and other information.

Advise them only to be friends with people they actually know and not to collect friends of friends. Some kids have several hundred friends; it's like a badge of honour and makes them feel popular.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre advises parents to add a ClickCEOP app to their kid's profile on Facebook. It gives them immediate access to the very latest on internet safety and shows you how to tackle viruses, spot grooming and block hackers.

Childnet International is a non-profit organisation which aims to help make the internet a great and safe place for children.

Its director of policy, Lucinda Fell, says: "I think parents are getting better at understanding about the internet but it's a challenging area and they need support."

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