'I can help my children help themselves on social media'
As more Irish children become active on social media, this dad plans to help his own youngsters by being a step ahead
Sometimes I catch Molly peeping over my right shoulder once she spots that unmistakable shade of 'Facebook blue' jumping out of my computer screen.
She's nearly nine, and the world of social media is as exciting to her as it is worrying to me.
We rarely allow Molly, her sister Aoife (5) or brother Aodhan (3), to view social media but we know that the day will come when we'll be bombarded with pleas to allow them to open their own accounts: "But sure everyone at school has one."
And so what to do? Should I reluctantly dig in my heels and tell them that social media is banned until they're 18, thereby making the virtual world even more attractive to them? Or should I do what I can to protect them when they eventually take to social media?
A new study in the UK by the knowthenet.org.uk website found that 59pc of children had used a social network by the time they were 10, and 43pc had messaged strangers online by the age of 12.
So what can a parent do to make sure their child is safe online?
The Childnet International group 'Digizen' (a fusion of the words Digital and Citizen) is recommended as a reliable site for guidelines in such matters, according to Ireland's Office for Internet Safety.
It advises evaluating social networking services using a checklist before giving your child the green light to proceed.
Parents and guardians should check on issues such as age restrictions - most, but not all, social-media sites say account holders must be at least 13. In reality though, many of our children have activated social-media accounts long before their teenage years kick in.
The checklist also recommends analysis of 'profile privacy' and 'moderation settings' - in other words, can your child's pictures and messages only be seen by a pre-selected network of friends, or is it likely users - unknown to your child - could see this content and perhaps make contact?
Digizen.org advises on what advertising is likely to be seen and looks at security protection on each social media site - some, you won't be surprised to hear, have much looser security in place than others.
I look across the sites surveyed - Facebook, Flickr, Myspace, Bebo, Ning, YouTube and TakingITGlobal, and while I appreciate each company aims to protect their users - I fear there's only so much they can or will do.
The devastating impact of cyberbullying on young teenagers has caused heartbreak in Irish homes. The tragic deaths by suicide of 13-year-old Donegal girl Erin Gallagher and 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley from Leitrim in 2013 were all the harder for their loved ones when it transpired that both had been bullied online.
The threat of cyberbullying, were it ever to happen to one of my children, makes me feel physically sick. According to the knowthenet.org.uk study, cyberbullying, potentially, can be carried out by children as young as 11.
So before your youngster dives headfirst into the online world, sit down with them and discuss why it's so vitally important they are aware of the pitfalls that exist with social media. If they feel they are being bullied or compromised in any way, they must confide in a parent, teacher or friend about what's going on so they can be assisted immediately.
It's crucial too that they understand an online post doesn't disappear into the wind like a throw-away comment in the playground: they need to know that they must treat others online with respect and be careful with whom they interact.
Keep a close eye on their internet usage and social media activity. Many parents monitor the latter 'from the inside' - by having an account on the same social-media account and being able to access their son or daughter's network.
Work with your children rather than control them or else you'll find yourself monitoring a rather dull social-media account while a much livelier one exists elsewhere.
Social media can be a great tool, and of course I can see why my daughter Molly wants her own identity online so she can interact with family and friends. It can also be educational and open our eyes to some aspects of our wonderful world.
Sensible open discussions with your child about their understanding of social media and about what they are getting up to online seems to be the way to go. When my time comes, I hope I'll be ready for the challenge.
For more information on how to protect your child on social media, visit the Office of Internet Safety at www.internetsafety.ie
Online lingo all parents must know
To understand what our children are getting up to online, we must get to grips with social-media slang - usually acronyms that will mean nothing to parents initially and so can go undetected when seen on a text message or online post. Here are just some of the slang words to watch out for:
KPC = keeping parents clueless - if you spot this then you may need to start asking questions
PIR = Parent in room
PAL = Parents are listening
AITR = Adult in the room
PAW = Parents are watching
PA or PA911 = Parent alert
CD9 or Code 9 = Parent around
99 = Parent gone
303 = Mom
Of more serious concern though is online sexual activity lingo, commonly referred to as 'sexting'. Parents, not familiar with the lingo, may overlook an overt approach by a stranger to their child online, underlining why it's so important to be able to decipher the acronyms.
GNOC = Get naked on camera
IWSN = I want sex now
LH6 = Let's have sex
CU46 = See you for sex
TDTM = Talk dirty to me
IPN = I'm posting naked
NIFOC = Naked in front of computer
WTTP = Want to trade pictures?
?^ = Want to hook up?
NSA = No strings attached
RU/18 = Are You over 18?
KOTL = Kiss on the lips
In general online conversation, a number of phrases, not immediately apparent, can be used by teenagers. Often the purpose of the abbreviation is to conserve space. On Twitter, for example, only 140 characters are allowed in each message, so the motivation for their use is not necessary to hide things from eagle-eyed parents.
Some of the slang includes:
AYPI = And your point is?
BCOY = Big crush on you
CMIIW = Correct me if I'm wrong
CPE = Coolest person ever
CSL = Can't stop laughing
DYD = Don't you dare
Facestalking = Looking through someone's pictures on Facebook
FCOL = For crying out loud
GBH&K = Great big hug and kiss
Broken = hungover from alcohol
NOBMR = None of my business, right?
PITA = Pain in the ass
PIMP = Peeing in my pants (laughing uncontrollably)
W/E = Weekend
WEG = Wicked evil grin
You may be under the false impression that you are 'down with the kids' for knowing what LOL stands for - but the complexities of the new and developing online social media language will really test those of us who didn't grow up with a smartphone and iPad in our hands.