‘Ugly sides of exposing kids to social media early’  

By Kate Halim

When children are left unsupervised to surf endlessly on the social media because they have access to smartphones, they can be exposed to many vices. They can also become targets for internet bullies, get exposed to pornography and become addicted to social media. 

These are the views of some parents as well as experts on mental health and child issues who spoke with Saturday Sun.

Forty-two-year-old Deb Babatunde is a doctor and mother of two girls. She stated that her first daughter, who is 12, just got a phone last Christmas because it was needed for communication while she, the mum, is at work. Babatunde added that her daughter’s access to the phone is well-controlled and she can share the phone with every member of the family. 

“She has some restrictions and we have full access to her phone. She does not have social media. She can use Google as she wants which is often needed for schoolwork but some websites will not open due to the restriction we put in place. She also has access to YouTube but with certain restrictions too,” she said.

Babatunde confessed that even with all the measures she and her husband put in place to monitor what their daughter could have access to on social media, she still constantly checks the daughter’s messages and browser history to make sure she’s on the right track with her social media use. She added that her daughter often brings things to her to check out when the lady is not clear whether she’s allowed to access them or not.

Onyeche Elizabeth Agbiti-Douglas said that her children aged 6, 9 and 13 have access to a phone for communication purposes outside school hours so that they can speak to each other. Still, there is no social media app on the phone.

The mother of three quickly added that as soon as they complete their secondary school education, they can talk about smartphones and having access to social media platforms.

Agbiti-Douglas said: “My children said they also have strictly controlled access to the Internet for school and personal projects, as well as educational research at school. And that keeps me at ease. I know they are not exposed to different things on the Internet.”

Mr Emmanuel Adeyemi, an architect based in Lagos, said that he gave his 15-year-old daughter a phone when she was 10 because he needed to constantly communicate with her and her younger brother who was 7 at that time. He said he took the decision so that his children would know that they could call him or his wife anytime and share with them how their day was going.

 “Doing this at that time gave me an opportunity to teach my children the meaning of trust and the consequences of betraying that trust. My children only picked up calls from numbers on their contact lists. Today, my children don’t pick up calls from strange numbers,” Adeyemi said.

The father of two revealed that he monitors the phone he gave his daughter and checks her call history randomly from time to time. He added that his daughter got a smartphone at 13 and he allowed her access to WhatsApp. He concluded by saying that his daughter will have access to Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram when she turns 18 to avoid exposing her to adult stuff. 

“I monitor her use of YouTube because she loves baking. She actually learned how to bake from watching different bakers on YouTube. It makes me proud that she uses the app to learn something that will benefit her and the family”, Adewale added. 

Lisa Dera said that she feels sad when she sees children using the Internet without adult supervision. The mother of three wonders why parents allow children, pre-teens and teenagers to have full access to different social media platforms without putting measures in place to control what they are exposed to. 

Dera said: “My seven-year-old daughter uses a tablet without a SIM card. I download cartoons for her myself so I can monitor what she watches. I don’t want her to use the tablet with a SIM card until she’s 15, and that will come with strict guidance too. I think kids can enjoy a little bit of social media from 15 but they should be monitored strictly by their parents.”

A teacher, Maryann Obiajulu said that children can use smartphones and have access to the Internet when they turn 15. She added that at this time, they are facing peer pressure and you don’t want to be a stiff parent who deprives your children of using social media but this should happen after they have been educated about social media and how things work online.

“Navigating social media is tough. Sometimes, these children don’t know how much danger you are saving them from by refusing to let them use social media to mingle with complete strangers. A lot of girls and boys have met paedophiles, rapists, kidnappers and killers online and if they are not monitored, they might end up in danger or even dead. They should know they must come of age before they use the social media,” Obiajulu added.

Obiajulu, a mother of four, revealed that she uses every opportunity in class to educate her students about the dangers of surfing social media unsupervised. “I play them videos of girls who were trafficked through social media as well as paedophiles who were caught trying to lure children to their den to sexually assault them. I teach them to listen to their parents when it comes to using social media.”

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Experts weigh in

Yemi Dabiri, a child and adolescent therapist said that when it comes to buying smartphones for children or allowing them to use social media, age isn’t as important as the child’s maturity. She added that parents should find out if the child follows rules at home and at school and if this is the case, then the child could have a phone. 

“Always remember that when you hand your child a phone, you are giving them a licence to the global world. So, it’s about maturity and a sense of responsibility, not age. Is your child well equipped, informed and adequately educated to be on social media? Even though most social media Apps restrict the age limit to 13, there are some children who are relatively responsible at 13 and others can’t even be left home alone yet.”

Dabiri said that it is important for parents to think about their children and their unique characteristics when considering if they are ready for social media because there are so many risks with social media. She added that the pressure and a lot of exposure could influence children either positively or negatively.

When it comes to monitoring what children are up to on social media, Dabiri noted that there are apps available that can monitor social media accounts and alert parents when their children are venturing into unfamiliar territory. 

She said that some apps even give detailed reports of browsing history and how long the child was online and each site visited by the child. 

“It’s very important you let your child know you will be monitoring their online activities and why it’s important to do it because if you don’t and they figure out, they can find a way around it. So be a good role model and educate them to be internet responsible.”

Dabiri outlined some measures parents can put in place to ensure that their children don’t mess up their lives through the social media. These include parents being more involved in their children’s lives by teaching them safe and responsible online behaviour, and keeping an eye on their Internet use. 

She said: “It is important for parents to have set rules around screen time. Protection tools are also available, they enable you to control their access to adult content and help protect them from Internet predators. Get software that helps block access to sites and restricts personal information from being sent online.”

In addition to the above, the therapist stated that it is also important for parents to keep devices where they can see them, not in the children’s room. They should also know their online friends. “Teach them to keep their location on and private when online.  Have set rules around internet use and lastly, be a good role model, live by what you say.”

Dabiri noted that some of the challenges of raising children during the social media age are exposure to inappropriate content, comparing one’s life to other people’s lives because of what they post on social media, cyber-bullying as well as harmful effects of hyper-sexualized media and hard core porn. 

 “The rate at which inappropriate content, images and words online are flashing is quite alarming as almost everything is sexualized. Cyber-bullying is also a growing challenge prevalent on social media platforms. It spreads fear and shame among people and may have undesirable effects on children,” she said. 

A mental health counsellor, Stephanie Yinkere said parents should give their children smartphones once they turn 13 or when they are in a secondary school, as most kids have class work and assignments sent to them online. 

When it comes to children having access to social media platforms, Yinkere noted that it depends on the social media platform. “For WhatsApp, age 13 is fine but for other platforms, it should be from age 18. Social media is very addictive with some negative influences. Exposure at a very young age is not appropriate.”

Yinkere, who is also a child and gender advocate, said that setting up a child email account with one parent account tied to that email account is a sure way to monitor what children are up to on social media. She said that way, every log into the play store, sites and apps can be monitored, deleted and restricted. 

“It is advised that parents download Kindle app on their children’s phones because it contains kids-friendly apps that are entertaining, and educative with zero negative influence. It blocks sites and apps that affect children negatively.”

Yinkere added that parents and caregivers should be intentional in the upbringing of their children. “We should always have talks with them. These talks should cover sexual, emotional, social and current trending issues. They need to know how to guard themselves against such ills whenever they stumble on them, either from friends, peers or adults. They should be so comfortable with you as their parent that they can tell them anything whenever they encounter such outside their safe space.”

She stated that raising children at this age can be very challenging because the  children can get information from anywhere on the internet and may also fall prey to sexual predators online. 

“According to studies, there’s an increase in rape and abuse cases among children and young teens because of their exposure to paedophiles on the internet. These predators groom and lure these teens with nice gifts which they fall prey to because of their innocent minds. Most of these kids are raped, infected, murdered or impregnated. Most childhood traumas are relatable to these negative impacts,” she noted. 

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