Children have ‘secret’ online profiles – but it’s natural for teens to evade parents’ gaze

Part of being a teenager is to seek privacy from the eagle adult eye and for them to be able to ‘live their own lives’. We’ve all done it and it’s an essential part of growing up. In many ways I would argue that since the advent of the mobile phone, today’s youth in many ways have less freedom from the adult gaze than previous generations. In my day, we would go out with friends for hours at a time or the whole evening, and often all our parents had as reassurance of our whereabouts and safety was trust and that we would meet the curfew.

Today our children are a  call away, we can text, Whatsapp them and bombard them with messages if we want to; we can even track their whereabouts to give us peace of mind and, of course, we can ‘befriend’ them on Instagram or Snapchat to get a window into their world. Our scrutiny is well intentioned: to help them to stay safe from unknown predators as well as to protect their own online profile, but it is hardly surprising that this generation – like any – will find a way to outwit us!

Therefore, it seems only logical that the way to do this is through secret profiles. From research I have done with my pupils, this is almost entirely through Instagram by having two and sometimes three profiles. ‘One which my parents are invited to be part of and a wide range of followers, and the other for only my close friends where I share my private jokes which I don’t want Mum to see,’ said one pupil. It is unnerving to think of them immersing ourselves in their private online worlds, which we can’t access, and it does come with risk - but is it a greater risk than those faced by previous generations?

We must be careful not to ‘catastrophise’ the ascent of the secret teenage online profile but rather to keep working with our teens to understand the risks of the online world, how to protect themselves and navigate it safely. They will make mistakes – we have all done this – and they will place themselves in vulnerable positions – we have done this too – but they, as did we, need to know that whilst they can run circles around us online, the door is wide open for us to support them if, and when, things do go wrong. As the key adults in their lives it is important for parents:

  • To be aware that our children may have secret accounts
  • To educate children to make the right decisions and to be safe when they are out of our sight, whether that’s online or in the real world
  • To support them to self-regulate the amount of time they spend online

This is as much of a challenge for us at Benenden as anywhere and, like our peer schools, we are working hard to manage it. We have several initiatives aimed at educating girls around safe online use:

  • Digital Champions – a group of pupils who, having received safeguarding training, communicate with groups of girls new to the school in how to stay safe online, and they brief the Senior Management Team on new online trends
  • Phone Fast – we ran a school campaign (staff as well) where for three days everyone handed their phones in just to see if we could survive without phones and social media. Whilst this is not a realistic way to operate, to the surprise of the girls, it was much easier than they had expected to thrive without their phones and the online world
  • On/Off campaign – a new campaign raising awareness amongst the Year 11 and Sixth Form (who are allowed phones during the school day) of whether they need their phone ‘on’ or ‘off’ at a given time, thus empowering them to take responsibility for their phone use

The important thing is that these, as well as other initiatives, are student-led and therefore have their buy-in

And, as one pupil said, ‘Once we’ve left university and are in work, we won’t be bothered with different profiles; this is just fun because of our age.’ However, we all want this to be safe fun!

 

Samantha Price

October 2018