While kids meet people face-to-face at school and in the local community, they are likely to meet many more people online.
At one time (many, many years ago) it was normal for a teenager to have two or three really close friends and up to 100 other people they know reasonably well. A good measure of their circle of friends is the birthday party. When children are very young they tend to invite everyone in their class, but as they form close relationships, they become more picky about who gets invited – and who doesn’t.
However, when they’re old enough to have a social media account, there’s a certain amount of peer pressure to play the numbers game.
“How many Facebook friends do you have?”
“A hundred and twenty-nine.”
“Really, I’ve got more than six hundred now.”
Having lots of ‘friends’ is a measure of someone’s popularity – and what youngster doesn’t want to be popular?
With potentially hundreds of online friends, relationships can be developed without ever meeting. Your kids may ‘meet’ new friends on Facebook, but then the relationship can move onto WhatsApp or SnapChat – and no matter how carefully you stalk their Facebook account, you may be missing a lot.
It’s good to have some ground rules. Educate your child and explain the reasons why:
- It’s OK to have conversations online, but NEVER to share personal information about themselves, including their home address. There are many instances of hundreds of youngsters turning up to a party that someone mentioned online – ending with fights and police involvement.
- If someone asks them to send images that they would not be happy for you or their friends to see – DON’T. There is never a good reason for this and this is how many of the people who have recently been jailed for their inappropriate relationships start out.
- If someone they’ve met online wants to meet them, ensure they meet in a public place, with friends. A coffee shop or shopping mall is a good choice, so if the person turns out to be not what they expected, it’s easy to get away or get help if they’re afraid. If someone is genuine that won’t be a problem.
Listen to what your child is saying and who they’re talking about. If there are people whose names you don’t recognise, ask them where they met, be interested and then ask “Will you be inviting them to your next birthday party?” If the answer is ‘of course not’, suggest that these are more connections than actual friends.
The more genuine interest you have in what your kids are doing, the more open they will be. If you start making accusations and demanding information, they’re much more likely to hide things and end up in trouble.