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Parents: wake up to the risks of social media



However, equipping our children with unprecedented levels of connectivity comes along with unprecedented levels of risk – from a legal, reputational, psychological and health perspective. As parents, it is of crucial importance that we understand what these risks are, and how to mitigate them.

Understanding the risks

  1. Cyberbullying: Whereas bullying was traditionally restricted to the playground during school hours, living in a digital age means it can happen anywhere, any time. For bullies, it is far easier to say something behind a screen (sometimes anonymously) than to someone’s face. The content is public and permanent. Cyberbullying is an unescapable 24/7 epidemic – one which we – as digital lawyers – deal with daily.
  2. Sexting: This is loosely defined as the sending of private or sexually explicit messages, photos and videos to someone else. The most common reaction we receive from parents whose children have been involved in sexting is, “My child would never do that.” However, for teenagers in this day and age, “nudes” as they are referred to, are unfortunately a social currency. We deal with underage sexting and nudes landing up in the wrong hands every single day. And to the nicest, most well-educated, well brought-up children. If your child is under 18 and has created content that is deemed to be sexually explicit, he or she could be found guilty of the criminal offence of creation of child pornography. Perhaps more importantly, if someone just *asks* your child for a nude, that person is guilty of the crime of soliciting child pornography.
  3. Stranger Danger: In a culture of oversharing online, it is often difficult to actually know who we are sharing content with, and who we are talking to. Two things are important to understand: 1) It takes just seconds to create a fake social media profile (anyone can pretend to be anyone) and 2) for our kids (and many adults), social media is one big popularity contest with the number of “friends” being a direct (but totally false) indication of your social status. What this means is that it is very easy for unsavoury characters and paedophiles in particular, to lurk behind a social media façade of a very innocent looking 14-year-old girl. Take a minute to ask your kids if they actually know all the people who follow them on Instagram or and all the people they’re friends with on Facebook and Snapchat? Usually the answer is: “We have mutual friends” or “He looks legit” or “She doesn’t look dodgy”. This is just not good enough! If your kids are on live-streaming apps like and (which, if they are between the ages of 10 and 14, they almost certainly are, they are undoubtedly sharing live videos and interacting with people they do not know).  If your children have hundreds (even thousands) of followers on Instagram, strangers have access to them.
  4. Health risks: The blue-light emitted from cell phones robs your children of the melatonin needed for sleep, and is proven to have a damaging effect on sleep patterns at night. Your children need to sleep. Please take away all screen time for two hours before bed and don’t let your children sleep with their phones in their room. We’re begging you.
  5. Addiction: Studies show that people experience a similar dopamine hit from a social media ”like” or ”share”, as that experienced from chemical substance intake. Conversely, when phones are taken away, the withdrawal symptoms are similar to those experienced by substance abusers.
  6. Long-term reputational damage: The Internet doesn’t forget. Even if content is deleted shortly after it is posted, a screenshot means that someone could have a permanent record of it. Before posting anything, your kids need to consider: “What would my school think of this?” “What would a prospective university or scholarship provider or employer think of this?” Unfortunately, the five seconds that someone takes to post or share something defamatory, derogatory, hurtful or harmful, could be five seconds that that person cannot get back.
  7. Legal consequences: The most common response we receive from parents of kids who are in trouble for something they have posted or shared online, is: “But my child is underage!” In South Africa, a child over the age of 14 has full criminal capacity and can be prosecuted for any offence he or she committed. For civil proceedings, a child as young as seven can be sued (albeit in the name of their parents). As we mentioned in our previous article in the Jewish Report, the legal consequences for conduct online are as severe (if not stricter) for offline behaviour.

Some tips for parents:

Now, before you go and toss your kids’ cell phones in the river, there is some (blue) light at the end of the tunnel. We aren’t saying that social media is all bad news. In fact, if used wisely, it can be of enormous value. So, what can you as parents do to make sure your kids make the best possible use of their mobile devices. The best possible advice we can give parents is:

  1. Educate yourselves, get on the apps: As parents it is essential that you familiarise yourselves with the apps your kids are on. Understand what they are doing online. Follow them on the platforms, see what they’re posting, see who their friends are. You will certainly feel out of your comfort zone, but it is the only way you will be empowered to follow our second and most important piece of advice.
  2. Have the conversations: Talk to your children about what they are doing on social media. You want to create a safe space for your kids to talk to you in the event of them getting into some kind of trouble online. Educate them on the risks, and make them comfortable talking to you about them. If your children have a cell phone, they WILL be exposed to pornography. When they tell you they’ve seen inappropriate material, don’t get angry (because they just won’t tell you next time). Have the conversation. It’s crucial.
  3. Set boundaries: Insist on cell phone free times (meal times, after a certain hour etc). Your children should not sleep with their cell phones next to their beds. If they’ve got them, they’re on them – listening to music, playing games and chatting to friends.
  4. Privacy settings: Insist that your children use maximum privacy settings on their social media accounts; that they are very careful about who follows them on social media; and that they do not speak to people they don’t know online – even if they look like a nice 14-year-old boy from a nearby school.

Emma Sadleir is a social media law expert, speaker, and author of Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex and other Legal Advice for the Age of Social Media, and founder of the Digital Law Company, a boutique legal consultancy specialising in all aspects of social media and the law. She is currently working on a social media survival guide for teenagers which will be published this October.

Sarah Hoffman is a lawyer and communication specialist and Business Development Manager at the Digital Law Company.

They both give talks at schools around the country on: The Legal, Reputational and Disciplinary Risks of Social Media.


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