MANY people would cringe at the idea of being friends with their parents on social networking sites like Facebook, Friendster and MySpace. Not that we have anything to hide. The posts can be viewed by all our friends anyway, and sometimes by their friends as well. Such sites aren’t exactly known for privacy.
Still, few people can handle “friending” their parents on Facebook or other similar sites. Not so for my friend and her daughter. They are pretty chummy with one another. Her daughter is not uncomfortable that mom can see all the crazy quizzes she takes on Facebook, the comments she shares with her pals, and who sends her virtual flowers and teddy bears.
I gotta say I’m relieved that they are friends on Facebook. Her daughter is only 12! So are many of her friends on Facebook. Technically, they are not even supposed to have a Facebook account, which has a rule barring users under 13. The age restriction is near impossible to implement. Simply lie about the year you were born in and your account is activated.
There are countless children at large on Facebook and other social networking and chat sites, where kids — and even adults — may be revealing too much personal information to strangers. Paedophiles and fraudsters are also at large in the same cyberworld, stalking for victims.
Some quarters may argue that parents should just forbid their kids from such sites, and even spy on them to be sure. Others take a more liberal position — let the kids enjoy using social networking sites but empower them to know what they should and should not do.
The digital generation
With the current generation of children being born into an increasingly digital environment, it’s hardly surprising that many kids use online chats and social networks.
Consider these figures cited by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef). Over 60% of children and teenagers are in online chat rooms daily. Three in four children online are willing to share personal information in exchange for products or services. And one in five children will be targeted by a paedophile or a predator each year.
“The internet has amazing potential as a learning and communication tool. It is an extraordinary source of information and self-improvement that encourages children to participate and express themselves,” Unicef representative to Malaysia, Youssouf Oomar, says in a media statement in conjunction with the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) on 17 May. The theme this year is “Protecting children in cyberspace”.
Youssouf notes that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees children’s rights to access and share information from the media, including the internet.
However, Unicef cautions that the internet also contains hidden threats to children’s safety and well-being. These include online gaming sites that can lead to unhealthy addiction, and cyber-bullying and victimisation through mobile phones that can have negative effect on a child’s self-confidence and personal development.
Other threats include exploitative marketing, sexual harassment and pornography.
Protection in cyberspace
“Children are the most active users of the internet, but they are also the most vulnerable. Therefore, protective measures are extremely critical to ensure that the internet is child-friendly, and that it promotes, rather than damages, children’s self development,” Youssouf says.
Parents or guardians are advised to supervise their kids’ access to the internet, coach them on personal safety and install the relevant parental control software.
While parents or guardians are primarily responsible for protecting their children in cyberspace, other relevant parties also need to share the responsibility. These include the government, regulatory bodies, industry providers, schools and the community.
In conjunction with the WTISD this year, Unicef collaborated with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to raise awareness on child protection in cyberspace. Here are some pointers:
Dangers children might encounter online:
• Racial abuse and hate
• Online gaming and addiction
• Online fraud and deception
(Source: Facebook group of For the love of
god — don’t let parents join Facebook)
Tips to keep children safe:
• Always get to know your child’s online habits
• Stay alert to any sudden changes in their mood, appearance, habits or increased secretiveness
• Let your child know they are free to talk to you about anything at any time
• Spend some time surfing the internet yourself
• Install internet filtering software on your computer
Meanwhile, parents grappling with their children’s obsession with social networking and chat sites can check out Facebook for Parents. For those who are 13 and above, and are not crazy about “friending” dad or mom, you might find solidarity in this Facebook group: For the love of god — don’t let parents join Facebook.
Cindy Tham is business development manager at The Nut Graph. She’s also interested in how different people and organisations promote their ideas, brands, products and services on the internet, whether for commercial or non-commercial reasons.