The dark side of social media

Social media is a fact of life for a huge percentage of the population over about 12 years of age. For the younger generation(s) it’s the rare introvert who doesn’t have at least a Facebook identity, and probably accounts with several other networks. This intercommunication is wonderful in some ways but extremely hazardous in others, and both parents and teachers need to get a better handle on the online activity of the children in their homes or schools.

The recent suicide of Hannah Smith, 14 years old and bound for college, brought the scary underside of social networking out again after authorities concluded that Hannah took her own life because of anonymous bullying on the site Ask.fm. The story created a storm of protests and possibly there will be some useful action on the part of regulatory agencies, but the problem is unlikely to go away.

In the case of Ask.fm, a site with more than 13 million visitors per day, the format allows members to ask and answer questions anonymously. Its terms and conditions say that users should not post ‘mean or hurtful’ questions or remarks, and they advise that any abuse can be reported. They also offer privacy settings that allow the user to opt out of receiving anonymous questions.

Unfortunately, many users don’t know how to use the options, and don’t report abuse because they don’t want to be seen as ‘informers’. According to the NSPCC, as many as one in five children are bullied online, and many observers and internet safety organisations contend that while teachers need to be much better informed about the internet activity of their students, the first responders should be parents.

Theoretically at least, children spend more time on the net at home than at school, and parents have much more one-on-one communication with their children than teachers can possibly manage. Parents can keep a closer eye on a child’s behavior regarding social media and the internet in general – hopefully close enough to prevent or correct such problems before they become tragedies.