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'The beast is out of the pen'

ONLINE PERILS: Generally the remarks are quite sweet, but it can spiral out of control. Then there is the game where you can award a 'friend' one of the following statuses: F***, Marry or Kill

It must seem unfair to single out one social networking site for criticism, but writing as a parent of a 13-year-old in first year, for me and for my peers, Facebook is causing extreme anxiety. That said, as an adult, I enjoy using it: it's a great way to keep in touch with friends and it is of course an invaluable marketing tool for many businesses. Where I have a problem is the way in which our children are using this product.

I am very worried about the pressures young Facebook users encounter, the desperate need to fit in, to be gorgeous and to be popular and cool.

All are regrettably normal aspirations for any young teenager since time began, but, until the era of social media, most communication had been face to face. If you wanted to kiss somebody, you had to ask them up close and personal; if you had something nasty to say, you had to say it in person. The problem with social networking sites is that all this communication is faceless and young teens on Facebook believe this interaction is normal.

The biggest dangers our children face on Facebook are bullying, premature sexualisation, exposure to unsuitable material via links, and disclosure of privacy.

Bullying is prolific and ably supported by 'rating' games such as HO – Honest Opinion, LP – Looks Personality and MP – Meet (meet means kiss) or Pass, where the kids give marks out of 10 and judgments to each other in these categories.

Generally the comments and remarks are quite sweet, but it can quickly spiral out of control, with some unbelievably bitchy and nasty comments. Then there is the game where you can award a 'friend' one of the following statuses: F***, Marry or Kill.

Early and wholly inappropriate sexualisation or pornification is rampant, with girls posting photos of themselves and each other in slut clothes and porn poses.

The girls and boys then compliment these photos with observations like "You're so hot, you're dripping weh" or "You wehhist yuss ever". 'Weh' stands for 'wet' and 'yuss' for 'young pussy'.

The casual acceptance of these photos can perhaps help us understand why the boys ask the girls to send them photos of their 'tits' and 'ass', nor is it unusual for the ensuing conversations to include mutual discussions about hand jobs, blow jobs, fingering, anal sex and lick outs.

Perhaps the 13-year-olds get their ideas on sex via the easy access from Facebook to a totally shocking variety of porn sites. These sad snapshots of current teen culture are facilitated by the total lack of controls on faceless Facebook.

Then there are the children who post innocent photos and information and have no idea who has access to this. Parents and children think their privacy settings are strong, but actually they don't seem to know that one photo or one conversation can go completely viral regardless of most security settings.

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Tagging is a process where photos can be posted on anyone's timeline. And then there is Fraping, alias Facebook Rape, the term the children use among themselves when someone signs on as them and sends inappropriate postings in their name or where they set up a Facebook account in another child's name and send out improper content.

There is a disquieting issue with security as the message about making your Facebook account secure and private just isn't getting through. The majority of children seem to have no sense of how their information can fall into the wrong hands – I don't only mean parents, but total strangers who can use this information to track them and lure them into nasty situations.

Another major issue of contention is the whole arena of 'Friends'. Teens measure their worth by the number of cyber friends they have, and they dismiss each other for not having hundreds, if not thousands. This leads them to accepting friends' requests from anyone anywhere, all to get the numbers up. Anybody out there can set up a Facebook account under any name. Any weirdo can pretend to be a hip, sporty 14-year-old or an avuncular mentor and have access to everything that is going on in a child's life.

Parents really need to understand who exactly these 'Friends' are, they need to find out who the proliferation of 'friends' who call themselves 'weh yuss', 'wettest yuss', 'Dublin's hottest yusses', 'best drippin yuss' etc etc really are. Does Facebook know who they are?

Hands-on, nuts-and-bolts education for parents is vital as it is clear that they simply don't know what is going on. Many don't have a Facebook account, many say their children are barred from having an account, but really this is just sticking one's head in the sand – Facebook is not going away.

Then there are parents who believe that by being a 'friend' of their child they can keep an eye on what's going on. The reality is that much of the dangerous stuff goes on in a conversation called 'messaging', which only the password user of the account can access. Parents need to be able to sign on as their child.

To those parents who say this is an infringement of the child's privacy, I ask them: would they let their child out for 24 hours a day unsupervised? Giving them a free rein on Facebook is the same thing. We owe it to them to give them moral guidance. It's tough being the parent cop, but knowledge is power and the more parents know how Facebook works and what pressures their children are under, the better.

Facebook has let the beast out of the pen and is offering scant advice on how to tame it. This is a total dereliction of duty: we need education, and we need safety measures that work. We need hands-on workshops from Facebook on how to maximise positive usage and minimise the dangers of misuse or simply naive use. We need points of contact, in person and online. We need a response.

Facebook should get involved with parents, schools and children and address five headline problems: 1) the porn culture that it facilitates leading to inappropriately premature sexualisation of children; 2) the links users have to inappropriate sites; 3) the bullying –faceless personality and looks ratings; 4) the disclosure of privacy; and 5) the lack of any effective education on how Facebook works.

The Government needs to get to grips with these problems and help with well-targeted, clearly delivered messages about Facebook and other internet social sites. In the UK there is an energetic government programme CEOP – Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. I would urge all parents and children to watch even one of its educational videos – go to www.thinkuknow.com

Schools need to get involved; they have a vital role to play in empowering parents with realistic information forums. Contemporary sex education and relevant moral guidance must become a far bigger part of the curriculum.

Parents have to take responsibility for oversight despite protestations from their children, remember they are wandering in a sinister world without the moral compass it is our duty to provide.

Facebook has a moral obligation and a commercial imperative to ensure its product is used appropriately and the company must become involved in education and far greater vigilance. If we work together, we can perpetuate this wonderful global window on the world and make sure it is a force for good. Parents, schools, the Government and Facebook must unite and work together to halt this dereliction of childhood and young adolescents. It is our duty to stand up and stop this unnecessary corruption of a generation.

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