Kids and social media

First published on Mamamia 31/1/2016

img_6848My son recently came home from school asking to have a look at Instagram. He told me one of his classmates had said he’d put my son’s photo up and he wanted to know if it was true. Neither of us have an account but it’s easy to create one and we quickly found the photo. It appeared innocuous. My son and two of his friends, smiling for the camera, taken after school.

BUT – the account was set to ‘public’ meaning anyone can see the pictures. Over a thousand people were following the account. My son was wearing his school uniform. With the logo visible and readable. One of the other boys in the photo had no shirt on at all. I was alarmed. Because – and here’s the unfathomable part – my son is eight years old. The owner of the public Instagram account is seven.

I was flabbergasted. Outraged. Upset. But mostly baffled.

Surely this boy’s mother either did not realise her son’s account was public? Or she did not understand the inherent risks in letting a young boy have unregulated social media accounts? As a police officer, I have seen first-hand how gullibility and inexperience can lead much older and wiser people into the dark and twisty depths of the world-wide-web.

I spoke to some of my colleagues at the police station about it and we agreed this was a matter of education. I grabbed a brochure on cyber safety and approached the boy’s mother at the school gate that afternoon. The conversation I had with her left me more baffled than I began with.

Yes, of course she knew the boy’s account was public. She set it to private, but he changed it back to public. She said it as if that was the end of that. There’s nothing you can do about your seven year old’s social media settings? Really?

Yes, she knew he had over a thousand followers. They’re all just other kids of course, she told me. Are you kidding me? Are you naïve or optimistic?

Yes, he had his own phone, data and social media accounts but she regulated it all. The photo of my son and friends had been on the account for several weeks. So you think it’s okay to post photos of other people’s topless seven year olds to public accounts? How good is your regulation?

No, she didn’t need the brochure on cyber safety, she knew all about that. If you understood cyber safety, would we be having this conversation? Do you think I’m doing this for laughs?

I didn’t say all those things to her. It was all very polite, but I walked away from it shaking my head in bewilderment.

I told the school, but knew already there was little they could do. The photo was taken outside of school hours. The boy always kept his phone in his schoolbag until after school was finished.

The whole thing led to some interesting conversations in our household – conversations I didn’t think I’d need to have for years. My kids will only be allowed to have phones and (regulated) social media accounts once they are in high school. But I’ve found out the hard way that this does not mean they may not already be affected by the issues surrounding social media.

To make things crystal clear – paedophiles use these social media sites. We know this. Police find the images along with child pornography. They use places like Instagram to ‘collect’ photos, groom children, blackmail children or in the worst case scenario, track children. They sell or trade photos of children. They attempt to engage with children – it may start with complimentary comments on photos and lead to private messages and beyond. Occasionally, they may become obsessed with a child. Depending on what information they can glean from the account, they may have the child’s name, names of family members, the school they attend, the area they live in and sports teams they play on. They can hang out in a public place, watch for the child they already have pictures of and call out the child’s name to try to lure them. This is an extreme scenario that almost never happens. But the fact that it could happen, that all this information is accessible by creepy strangers should be enough to give a parent goosebumps. Especially when the child is too young to even understand there is something they need to protect themselves from.

Parents must educate themselves before allowing their children to have social media access. If they rely on what their child is telling them, or their own best guess, they are leaving their children exposed.

Fortunately, the same internet that can pose the dangers, can also offer valuable advice. The e-version of the cyber safety brochure I gave the other mother is available on the Queensland Police website at https://www.police.qld.gov.au/programs/cscp/personalSafety/children/childProtection/.

There is also loads of useful information at www.cybersmart.gov.au.

img_6848Educate yourself. Educate your children. Don’t pretend the predators aren’t lurking out there.

 

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When can a child walk to school by themselves?

Miles pic

This has generated lots of passionate discussion on social media.

This article from Miles police appeared on social media and in the news through the week, causing enormous uproar. It cautions parents against letting their children walk to school by themselves. As a mother and a police officer, I have strong opinions on this, and judging by the commentary on social media, so do many other parents.

Firstly, I want to clarify that yes – this is a current piece of legislation in Queensland. Yes, the exact age of twelve is specified. The law considers that at this age, children are considered responsible. But importantly, this law does not immediately deem children under that age irresponsible. The key phrase in the legislation is “without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child”.

What is ‘reasonable provision’? What defines ‘an unreasonable time’? It’s open to interpretation. But if you can name even one thing that may constitute this provision, then you probably have no need to worry about this law.

Does your child walk with siblings or another child? Do they have safe ways to cross any roads? Have you walked the route with them and addressed possible problems? Have you spoken to them about what they should do if approached by someone? Will someone quickly let you know if your kids fail to turn up? Any of these are reasonable provisions.

Some parents send their five year olds off by themselves to get to school. There are ten year olds sent off to school who detour past the local skate park and never make it to classes. There are seven year olds who wander out in peak hour traffic on their way to school, trusting in the quick reactions of drivers. So these specific laws are dragged out by exasperated police when dealing with repeated situations like this.

When I was a kid, our parents were happy for my brother and I to walk to school as soon as we were old enough to attend. This was the norm. But my parents also made us ride in the boot portion of the family station wagon after we’d been to the beach so we didn’t wreck the upholstery. We live in a different world today. As much as I’d like my kids to have a childhood disappearing all day and returning home once the street lights came on, it’s just not the same. There’s been a shift in awareness.

However, I do want to raise independent and capable children who can make practical decisions. So my children, aged seven and nine, walk part of the way to school by themselves on some mornings. I have made a number of provisions and I have no fear for their safety. This is even though, as a police officer, I know the sort of people lurking around and the sorts of things that happen. By applying due diligence and common sense, I’ve minimised the risk. I accept there is always some small risk, but this is inherent in everything we do. If someone attempted to charge me simply on the basis of the ages of my children, it would be thrown out of court. I don’t believe it’s the intention of the legislation. What age you are happy to let your children do things alone is a question for your family, and not the law – providing the ‘reasonable provisions’ have been met.

I recently discussed this very piece of legislation with the detective in charge of my local Child Protection Investigation Unit. I was on the cusp of leaving my nine year old at home by herself for short periods of time. The same law applies for this as for walking to school alone. He asked whether I had made ‘reasonable provisions’ for my daughter. She knows my phone number. She knows which neighbours she can go to. She is forbidden from going to the door unless it is a short list of specific people. She knows about ‘tricky people’ as well as ‘bad people’. She has been quizzed on what she would do in numerous hypothetical scenarios. She is responsible and sensible. As a parent, I am happy to leave her alone for short periods of time.

The age of twelve is arbitrary and Queensland seems to be the only state which has set this. I personally thought high school would be the age when I would leave my children alone for longer, so they wouldn’t have to go to vacation care when I’m at work. But with high school now including Year 7 in Queensland, many kids will start at the age of eleven. So do they have to return to primary school vacation care programs until they turn twelve? Or do the ‘reasonable provisions’ extend to a full day?

It boils down to what steps you have taken to ensure your child is safe. If the worst case scenario does happen, what could you say about your actions?

I’m not sure what prompted this particular notification in Miles. But I can guarantee there is more to this story than police randomly choosing a child quietly making their way in to school. Although I think this particular notification was probably ill-advised and the interpretation that ‘kids under 12 cannot walk or ride to school alone’ is flawed, the resulting reactions show that it is clearly a topic many parents seek guidance on.

It’s certainly prompted parents to think about their views and why they hold them. And that in itself is a positive thing.