I use social media every day. It is part of my job as a marketing and publicity executive and it’s part of my daily routine. The first thing I do when I wake up is reach for my phone to check my news alerts and Twitter account. I know it’s not healthy but, like smoking or coffee, it is society’s new addiction.
But what about children who are being brought up as the first wholly social media generation? I know for a fact that all of my eleven to eighteen-year-old relatives are on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and have YouTube accounts. Some of my acquaintances have even given their kids under eleven-years-old access to Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube. But are they taught how to use them safely or do they simply learn by proxy?
Are they still taught not to talk to strangers? Yes, but not when it comes to all strangers on social media.
I’m over eighteen and have made many friends and contacts via social media. I regularly talk to strangers as part of my job and have made further contact with some people via their email addresses, other social media accounts and even their home addresses to send parcels or gifts.
I can say I’ve never met up with anyone I’ve first met on social media but I know plenty of people that have, and many of them have created long-lasting and beneficial relationships. Yet I can’t say I don’t worry about people, particularly people under eighteen, that talk to complete strangers on social media on a regular basis with the idea of being social and therefore with the aim to make relationships.
A conversation with someone on an open channel such as Twitter can quickly transfer to a private DM, to exchanging numbers on WhatsApp and talking every day. Some people don’t take very long to meet up, for a work purpose or simply for social enjoyment, but what if that person is a sixteen-year-old? Or a fourteen-year-old? Or a twelve-year-old?
If a person comes up to you in the street and says ‘You’re so funny’ or ‘I love what you’re wearing’ you might take it as a compliment and walk away. If they do it again the following day you might think it was a little odd, and if it continued you might possibly feel threatened. Yet when this sort of conversation happens on social media, with the protection of a screen and probably several miles between you and the other person, it seems entirely harmless and simply complimentary.
Social media is a social programme after all and its unique selling point is to help us be social from our homes on it, but ultimately you are still, more often than not, talking to complete strangers.
Can we still teach our children to ‘not talk to strangers’ when they have regular, open and mostly unmonitored access to social media?
Yes, and no.
As a volunteer for my county council and police department, I used to regularly teach children not to talk to strangers. I ran simulations, gave lectures and at one point - in a secure and regulated workshop - would talk to children via a computer and attempt to get as much as personal information from them as possible, to prove how easy it is to give too much personal information online.
The thing that always surprised me was how unprepared the kids were at ten and eleven years old, even within slightly obvious environments. They were there to learn safety and yet still gave a lot away and some even attempted to add me - a complete stranger apart from a volunteer they had listened to for an hour - on social media the following day.
There are resources on the internet for parents and adults to refer to when it comes to digital safety, such as internetmatters.org but is this isn’t going to stop children making social connections on sites like Twitter and Instagram where it is regularly encouraged to talk to people you don’t know.
Life lessons that my generation was taught, which are second nature to me, aren’t applicable in the same way with the next generation. We were told to never get in a stranger’s car, yet we do this all the time with Uber. And we were taught never to talk to strangers, yet I talk to more strangers on Twitter than I do acquaintances I know every day.
We need to alter these life lessons so that they are applicable to the younger generation and don’t inhibit them from making contacts socially but help them understand the difference between a new acquaintance and an online stranger.
After all, it is a lot easier to disguise yourself online than it is person.