Photo credit: Tracy Le Blanc
Those of us who are parents will know the pitfalls that the internet and social media can bring for our children. It is drummed into us constantly by the schools, through the media, in Facebook parent groups, online forums and via advertising.
Most social media platforms have age restrictions in place that require users to be at least 13 years of age. This is primarily due to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule ("COPPA") in the USA which protects the privacy rights of children by not allowing online services to collect personal data on users under the age of 13 years, without first obtaining parental permission. This would be an onerous task to accomplish so online services mainly choose to simply avoid the ambit of the rule altogether by imposing age restrictions. Per the UK Safer Internet Centre , sites requiring these age limits, include Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Music.ly, Skype and Whatsapp (latter restricts use to 16 years and over). Tiktok is another such platform requiring minimum age of 13 for users.
Although these age related restrictions are in place to protect privacy, they are also a good baseline age for safety and security levels too as these sites are prone to containing adult related content not suitable for younger viewers. This could be anything from prolific swearing to mentions or scenes of a violent or sexual nature.
Photo credit: Cottonbro
Unfortunately young kids, street wise or not, often buoyed along by peer pressure, are all too willing to use fake dates of birth to gain access to these platforms and see it as a right of passage. It is just not "cool" amongst friends if you don't have an active account, and too many parents overlook the inherent dangers and succumb to their children's pleas for peer inclusion in the digital world. And even if your child does not have access to all the age restricted sites out there in the market, this does not mean they don't remain vulnerable to them, because their peers may well have access and may lack the maturity to be responsible with the technology, thus exposing your child almost vicariously to risk and content that should only be viewed by more mature audiences.
Hands up how many of you have actually experienced first hand the very real dangers of seeing children who are unsupervised, having unfettered access to social media platforms and age related content, and the incredible damage that can be caused as a result? OK! I can't actually see the show of hands...but just consider the question for a moment... and I can certainly tell you, that until recently, I hadn't!
To give you some background to what I am about to share, my children are 8 and 10 years old respectively and their exposure to the internet and social media includes the following:
having mobile phones that they use on our home wifi, or that they hotspot to my phone when we are travelling. They use them as you would use a tablet/ipad to watch youtube videos from channels that we approve of, to watch age appropriate films and the Disney + channel, and to play a few age appropriate fun games. Our eldest who is 10, has recently been given a sim card with no data or call time on it, purely so that he can have Whatsapp on his phone to chat with his cousins and his best friend who is no longer at his school. These chats are a means to communicate whilst they play minecraft or fortnite online together. He knows that he is not to give his number to anyone outside of his classmates and not to answer unsolicited phone calls from unrecognised numbers. He is very good about telling me if his phone has rung. Whatsapp is age restricted only due to GDPR privacy rights of children and his use is well supervised.
Our children play Fortnite and Minecraft on laptops in our lounge where we can hear exactly what is being said, and they are only allowed to play with friends or with other children that we ourselves have heard in conversation with them. They are not allowed to reveal any personal information about themselves other than their first name. My husband and I both checked the games out beforehand and concluded that we were happy that the Battle Royale version of Fortnite was no worse than playing a game of paintball or the Star Wars online games. Our children are most certainly not allowed to play any other games with age restricted adult related violent or sexual content eg: Call of duty, GTA etc, and are not allowed to have Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok or similar as we do not believe that the unfettered content on these platforms is age appropriate. They are also not allowed phones or laptops upstairs in their bedrooms.
Two weeks ago our eldest went to a class mate's house after school to do some gaming. I was aware that his friend played Fifa and Fortnite but not aware of anything else. I knew that the parents were going to be home too. This kid has a bit of history with my son in that they have had altercations in the past and he actually beat my son up when they were both 5 years old! As my son is in a one form entry school, the school were not able to separate them at the time into different classes and urged us to take a reconciliatory approach as the offending child was so young. There are also only about a dozen boys in my son's school year so they all tend to play football together at breaktimes and we didn't want to isolate our son from his other friends. Quite a few years have passed since then and, during lockdown, the kids hardly saw each other as everyone was home schooling. When my son asked if he could have a gaming playdate with this kid, I did ask him about the kid's recent behaviour at school and he said that it seemed to be better now. I reflected and thought that I should be the bigger person and give the kid a second chance as he has had a chance to mature and had been quite polite to me of late. In hindsight, I should have gone with my gut instinct and appreciated that leopards seldom change their spots!
After I had picked my son up from the playdate, I received a call and a flurry of text messages from another parent in his year group. She was outraged to put it mildly. I had to ask her to give me a chance to get home and read her messages and promised that I would get back to her.
Long story short, she presented me with audio clips purporting to come from what she believed to be 'my son's' tiktok account as the user name was the same as my son's Fortnite user id. The audio clips were disguised with a voice effect and contained unacceptable language and content and had been recorded and sent to her daughter.
My son does not have a tiktok account but it turns out, that this other kid had taken advantage of my son's naivety and misplaced trust and created a second tiktok account of his own on his own ipad using my son's fortnite user id and phone number. He then made the audio clips whilst my son was at his house but was otherwise engaged watching youtube videos on his phone. The kid then sent the audio clips to the unsuspecting 3rd party.
My son was blissfully unaware of the mayhem being created, whilst I was unaware that my son had taken his phone to the playdate! Apparently it was to "prove" he had one, as he had been ragged by the kid about it.
This other kid initially denied having created the account or having made the audio clips, and only admitted to having sent them to the girl in their class. He blamed everything else on my son. The evidence so far has, however, shown it was created on the other kid's Ipad (undisputed) using his older sister's date of birth (proven and which was unknown to my son) and enabling 2-factor authentication which my son is thankfully unable to do on his own. This kid's older sister then managed to remove one of the voice filters and proved that at least one of the clips was made by her brother, who then admitted to making the audio clip, and as all of them appear to have been made by the same person (agreed by all 3 sets of parents at the outset), it can be deduced that the other kid made them all.
If this had been left to the parents to resolve, it would have been done and dusted. Tiktok account deleted and audio clips no longer accessible, with lessons learned all round. However, the victims of the audio clip messages decided that they would talk about the incident at school. A teacher overheard and took them to the headteacher. The headteacher felt that they had no option but to call in all three sets of parents and then to escalate to outside organisations.
I have provided transcripts of the audio clips to the relevant organisations and asked for the clips to be unencrypted so that my son's lack of involvement can be proved once and for all. My son's Youtube history also shows that he was watching Youtube whilst he was at this child's house and we are convinced that, once unencrypted, the audio clips together with time stamping of the tik tok clips and youtubing, and the rest of the evidence, will conclusively clear our son's name.
Thankfully, it appears that subject to some final checks, that, based on the evidence, interviews, and on reports from the school etc, that this issue may soon be behind us.
Photo credit: Joseph Ruwa
Since the incident happened, I have been informed by a close friend, who knows the other family well, albeit they are not friends with them, that the kid's parents are involved in substance abuse and that the kid is allowed unfettered unsupervised access to adult themed games and films, that he uses foul language, and has also physically hurt their son on more than one occasion. Had I known all of this, I would never have let my child go to the kid's house after school. This information has also now been passed on to the relevant organisations.
It just goes to show that we don't truly know the people that we associate with in our own communities. Just because a child is in your child's class and their family live in a big house in the local community, does not make them a reliable or trustworthy family. It is no indication that they share the same values as your own or have the same attitude towards protection of their children as you do, and children sadly become products of their environment. Risks can come from unlikely places and we shouldn't let our guard down because of seeming overfamiliarity. We don't truly know what hides behind the closed doors of others, and we should exercise a lot more caution before allowing our children to walk through unsupported and unprotected.
We have now put in even more strict controls around phone and internet use as a result of this incident, and as a result of realising just how vulnerable our children actually are, both directly and indirectly, to social media abuse.
I share this story to raise awareness of the very real dangers of not appreciating how children at this age are too trusting of their peers, and how children of this age are also not past being manipulative and inappropriate on social media.
This is a situation that really could have had serious consequences for my son and our family, due to the actions and constant web of lies told by his classmate. These are now unravelling, and slowly but surely proving my son's innocence, and clearing his name.
Please do make sure that your children are internet and social media savvy and that they are not accessing age inappropriate platforms or content. They are not always capable of making the right decisions themselves, especially when it comes to peer pressure and manipulation. Make very sure that you know the parents well before you entrust your child into their care.
Hopefully it will all be over soon, at least for us. What ramifications this will have for the other boy and his family, only time will tell.