THE BLOG

The Continued Growth of Social Media and the Threat to Child Safety

28/06/2013 16:35 BST | Updated 28/06/2013 16:35 BST

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There has always been bullying. It's nothing new. When I was growing up in the late 80's and as a teenager in the mid-late 90's, the majority of it was verbal, and aimed at fashion, music or your haircut. The difference between then and now is that it took place in the open and was usually dealt with in the moment, either by confrontation or by a teacher or parent intervening almost immediately.

The internet changed everything - for better and for worse - and with the technological advances came opportunities for increased social interaction with friends, family and people with the same likes and dislikes as you from all over the world. The likes of Friends Reunited, Friendster and Myspace became the first popular social media platforms, but were soon blown out of the water by giants such as Facebook and Twitter. Over 1.5 billion of us now have a Facebook or Twitter account. If Facebook was a country it would be third biggest in the world. It's safe to say that social network has taken over the world.

On the issue of bullying though, social media allowed bullies to change tactics, and with less risk involved. Psychological bullying came to the forefront, with Facebook Groups, pages and live chats all available for vulnerable kids to be targeted. Parents wrote social media off as a "fad" or a "trend" and the majority of them - through no fault of their own - left their kids to it, believing social media to be a harmless tool. The next step in the technological revolution that would be yesterday's news as soon as the next big thing arrived.

Parents are now starting to see the risks involved in allowing their children to use social media. There are some tragic cases of children committing suicide because of bullying through social media. When it is happening out in public you can deal with it in the moment. When you're alone in your bedroom and the thoughts of what has been said about you online are left to fester, it can be an incredibly stressful and traumatic ordeal.

For somebody who didn't get a mobile phone until they were 17, a Facebook account until they were 24 and has absolutely no interest to jumping on the Vine, Instagram and Snapchat bandwagon, social media bullying both disgusts and confuses me. What happened to innocence? And why do parents feel the need to buy children as young as 8 years old an iPhone or Nokia Lumia? It seems like years ago the TV was used as a stand-in for parenting, the mobile phone, internet and social media are now.

That statement might anger some people, but there are many reasons why this is the case. First of all, why is a top of the range mobile phone necessary for a child under the age of 16? They need a phone that has 1) The ability to make calls, and 2) the ability to send a text message. Nothing else.

Secondly, if a child has numerous social media accounts - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. - then it should be monitored by parents. This is difficult to monitor 24/7, but when you read stories of prolonged abuse and bullying via social media, it is hard to believe that parents who were monitoring their children's online presence wouldn't find worrying examples of where their children might be overstepping the mark.

But the responsibility doesn't just lie with the parents and the kids. There are professional services such as video moderation and image moderation for companies such as Vine and Instagram to take advantage of. They can be used to ensure what goes online is checked before it goes live, moderating them for any sexual, violent or disturbing imagery.

It only takes one uncompromising photograph or video of a person to be posted online between friends to cause an incredible amount of stress and embarrassment for a child. Back in the day, you could close your door and hide from bullies. Social media allows the bullies to follow you home and continue to torment you for long after you leave.

It isn't just about bullying either. Sexual content is plastered all over the internet, and the development of video-based social networks such as Vine and Snapchat (and with Instagram looking to focus on video content too) has already seen examples of children's accounts being followed by adults who were not known to their families and pornographic videos and images being uploaded on the sites. The networks have stated that they are working to stop this as quickly as possible, and the likes of Google are spending a great deal of their money to try and eradicate the problem.

It could be that they are fighting a losing battle, but at least they are doing something to prevent children from viewing such damaging content. With the help of parents - who need to understand the dangers of these social media giants and keep up to date with developments in this arena in order to better understand how and why their children are using them - the social media and search engine companies can work together to making the online experience a safer place for children all over the world.

Photo credit: Rosaura Ochoa via photopincc