By Sandra English Psych4Schools Guest Blogger
The online behaviour of young people attracts significant discussion, with some experts attributing negative outcomes, including mental health issues to online engagement. Some studies have noted that the increased time spent time on social media may contribute to negative body image , sleeping difficulties  or symptoms of depression.
Then again, there are leading researchers who highlight positive effects of online engagement, such as building connectedness and belonging between young people. An Australian study  identified that after a five-day absence from Facebook, individuals felt a sense of disconnect from their peers resulting in a detrimental effect upon their sense of wellbeing. Furthermore, other studies  report that most secondary school students can identify benefits in being able to access a mobile phone within the classroom, including increased engagement and motivation.
Online engagement by young people is unlikely to decrease. It is important for those working with young people, such as teachers, psychologists and parents to promote safe behaviours. Following are a few tips:
- Learn about social media– Be knowledgeable about social media and understand the main aim and features, including privacy settings of the popular platforms or sites young people use. Learn the language associated with the site, for example ‘posting’, ‘tagging’ and find out how to report inappropriate activity for each one. This enables you to engage in meaningful conversations regarding appropriate use with the child and perhaps identify problematic behaviours.
- Rules and boundaries– It is recommended that parents/carers and schools set agreed online engagement rules, including adherence to the recommended ages for each platform or site. For example, Facebook and Instagram are not recommended for children under 13 years. YouTube is recommended for individuals over 18 years of age. However, it allows access from age 13 years with parent permission.
Decide the allocated time the individual is allowed to engage with sites. Families may decide that all family members (including adults) hand their device in at a certain time or allocate a device free zone, for example, mealtimes. In a school setting, it may be helpful to have allocated times for engaging online.
It may be advisable for the school to enlist an internet safety program that blocks access to specific online sites during school time.
- Question everything – Teach the child or adolescent to be thoughtful and to question everything they see online. Encourage them to explain the difference between true and false information. In this way, the individual can be supported to become more analytical in their responses to online information.
- Teach online etiquette– It is critical that young people are self-aware, have a clear understanding of online etiquette and can reflect on their online behaviours. Help them to consider how social media engagement is different from face-to-face interactions. For example, when engaging online, body language and social cues may not be evident and therefore the tone of a message can be misconstrued. Assist young people to think carefully about those conversations appropriate for online engagement and those more appropriate as face-to-face exchanges.
- Cyberbullying –Teach young people about the behaviours that constitute cyberbullying. These include, posting threatening, humiliating or inappropriate messages or images or tagging another person inappropriately, deliberately excluding a person from online chats or impersonating another person online. Where cyberbullying occurs, is recommended the young person seeks support to request the individual concerned to cease the behaviour and keeps a log of any reportable behaviours. If the behaviours do not change the young person should be supported to report the behaviour (see information on the Office of the eSafety Commissioner).
Parents are encouraged to maintain an open dialogue with their child, so they feel comfortable to talk to them about online interactions that are unmanageable or worrying. In a school setting, a teacher, counsellor or psychologist can support students in sharing issues with their parents or trusted adult and can assist them to report the behaviour to authorities.
Young people need to feel confident that their online privileges will not be withdrawn as a result of the inappropriate behaviour of others.
- Sharing Information– Although it is recommended that parents view the online interactions of their child and adolescents, it can be difficult to enforce this suggestion with adolescents who are highly sensitive about their privacy. Hence, it is important to educate young people, suggesting they consider if their postings would be acceptable for a family member like their grandparent to view. If not, encourage them to reconsider the post.
Sandra English is a teacher-trained clinical psychologist who works as a Clinical Psychologist at Loreto College, Marryatville, South Australia, 5068.
Psych4Schools welcomes comments and suggestions of resources and strategies that you have used to help promote safe online behaviours for students in your classroom and at home.
Psych4Schools Psychologist/Guidance Officer
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Idani, J., Shensa, A., Hoffman, B., Hanmer, J., & Primack, B. The Association between Social Media Use and Eating Concerns among US Young Adults, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, September (2016), Volume 116, Issue 9: Pages 1465–1472.
Levenson, JC, Shensa, A., Sidani, J., Colditz, J., & Primack, B. Social Media Use Before Bed and Sleep Disturbance Among Young Adults in the United States: A Nationally Representative Study, Sleep, 2017 Sep 1;40(9).