Family & relationships

November 12 2017

Beyond the digital divide

Nick Place
By Author

How parents and teens are learning to navigate the risks of life online

Carmel Molony is Facebook friends with her daughter, Frankie, who just turned 14. She also follows her daughter’s Instagram account. But then Frankie’s digital life disappears into Snapchat and Carmel knows she cannot follow.

“I could be on Snapchat with her but I still wouldn’t be able to know her activity. It’s not a platform like the others,” she said. “As a parent, even if I wanted to, I simply couldn’t say I want to see all your snapchats. But I know she uses it a lot.”

Michelle Fincke has four children, aged 13 to 17, and has also come to realise that once a child has a smartphone, real time monitoring of their social media habits becomes impossible.

“My 15-year-old is really into music these days, which is lucky,” she said. “If you think of the internet as an insane haunted mansion, he was a kid who wanted to explore every room, attic, basement, dark corner and cupboard. Now he only wants to go to the entertainment room, so I’m happy about that.”

The experience of these two mothers reflect a finding of the recent Digital Me survey, commissioned by the Australian Psychological Society and released as part of Psychology Week (November 12-18). According to the survey, 60 per cent of parents never monitor their child’s social media account and, in fact, are wrestling their own issues about how much is too much screen time, let alone providing good guidance to their children.

The Digital Me survey explored how social media and technology is affecting the wellbeing of Australians. More than 1,000 adults and 150 teens aged 14 – 17 years were surveyed.

While the vast majority of adults and teenagers surveyed reported that their screens and social media accounts were a positive part of their lives, the study also found that an alarming 15 per cent of teenagers reported being approached by strangers on a daily basis through their online world, while 28.7 per cent said that they had been bullied on social media in the last 12 months.

But Australian Psychological Society spokesperson Dr Lyn O’Grady warned against being too alarmed by the apparent “stranger danger” indicated by the survey. Noting that the number of teens surveyed was quite low, she also said that the term “stranger” would need to be investigated further, before conclusions could be made about how worried parents should be. “’Stranger’ might just mean a friend of a friend, or it could be somebody they engaged with on, say, a Facebook group about a topic they’re interested in,” she said.

Carmel Molony agreed, saying her 14-year-old daughter went to a school with 280 kids in her year level alone, so often accepted friend requests or online conversation from fellow students she’d never actually met, or friends of theirs – even if this does raise the slight danger of somebody on the other side of the screen pretending to be that person. ‘Put it this way: she doesn’t talk to anybody that somebody doesn’t know,’ Carmel said.

Lyn added that of the teen sample, the older youths should be spreading their social circles. “If we’re talking about the 17-year-olds in the survey, they’re almost adults and interacting with strangers is actually an important and necessary developmental stage, whether on social media or in real life. If the younger teenagers, or even younger kids, were reporting daily approaches by strangers, I’d consider them much more at risk. They are less able to identify risks and more likely to act impulsively compared to adults. They need boundaries, rules and the guidance of parents to help them make good decisions – just as they do offline. The empowerment of parents is really important.”

The survey found that more than three in four teens (78.8 per cent) and more than half of all adults (54 per cent) were “highly involved” with their mobile phones. Teens are reportedly using social media for an average of 3.3 hours each day, on five or more days of the week, but it can be difficult for parents to manage their child’s time drain when more than one in five adults admit to using their mobile phone for no particular reason, or losing track of how much they are using it. The survey found that a sizeable percentage of adults, like teens, can suffer low self-esteem from social media (especially Instagram users), have been bullied online and tend to look at social media in bed before sleeping, which has been found to affect sleep quality.

“When it comes to digital life, parents aren’t necessarily across the issue, or able to make comparisons with what is acceptable,” Lyn said. “It’s not like alcohol or other traditional issues of youth. They can’t say: ‘When I was your age…’ or ‘I’ve been there.’” Instead, this is a journey for parents and teens to go on together, rather than the parents being supervisors.

In fact, this may be the best way of discovering whether a teenager is comfortable with how their digital interactions are going. “Saying, ‘I’m hearing about this; do you know about it? Has it happened to you?’ is a conversational way of starting the discussion without the teen feeling like you’re trying to monitor them,” Lyn said. “For the younger end of the demographic, there is a delicate balance needed between parental supervision and the foundation of trust and an adolescent’s need and right for privacy. In lots of ways, parents have been dealing with that balance forever, but having control and power over a teen has never really worked at that stage. Parents need to be informed and understand, instead. Really, they should let their kids teach them about social media. Kids should be telling you what’s going on, so you can make good decisions together.”

Carmel Molony said she and her daughter had a strong relationship when it came to such discussions. “Frankie is more hostile if we try to manage her time investment with that stuff. She’s at a school where they have a laptop, an iPad and are allowed to have their phones. She went from a primary school, having nothing, literally overnight to a school where they have everything, so we are trying to put in place some way of helping her to not go down this rabbit hole.

“In terms of what she’s actually doing online, if she wants to do something without me knowing, she can. I can’t manage that. I have to try and talk about my expectations, about how she needs to be thinking about herself and her mates and all their wellbeing. We’ve talked about her need to be wary about what she posts; that that stuff never goes away. About her need to be aware of what she’s doing and what’s appropriate to post; you know, don’t say anything on a social platform that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face. It seems like it’s its own little world but it’s actually not. It’s connected to the real world.”

Michelle Fincke said she is unconcerned with the idea her teenagers encounter strangers online, whether friends of friends or genuine strangers in online groups they belong to. “I don’t mind, with the proviso that they are talking about what’s appropriate and what isn’t. I’ve spoken to all of them about this: if you are uncomfortable with what’s being said, you should probably avoid it and that person, and you can talk to me about it.

“I am confident there is almost no chance one of my kids would agree to meet somebody they have met on the net, and they have friends that they talk to about this stuff. I’ve told my 15-year-old that he and his friends have to have each other’s backs: at parties, with online stuff, with potential bullying.”

To learn more about the Digital Me survey and Psychology Week or find tips for thriving in the digital age visit