Eleanor Levy, editor of Parent Info, the online advice and information service for schools, gives her strategies for dealing with negative online influences
It’s normal for children to want to copy their friends. But now offline influences are joined by online peer pressure: the friends they chat to on social media or while gaming, and the celebrities they follow on Instagram or YouTube.
Of course, a child wanting to copy their peers isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Young people can be inspired by friends and online role models to be creative, take up a sport and eat more healthily, or encouraged to work harder at school.
But sometimes online peer pressure can result in young people being pressured into acting in ways they would never think of doing by themselves, or in the offline world.
Bullying among school children isn’t a new problem but the internet has created new ways for young people to gang up on others.
Encouraging someone to make nasty comments on social media or joining in to impress your friends may seem OK at the time. After all, it’s easy to do when you’re not standing in front of the person you’re victimising and everyone else you know is doing it too. Unfortunately, cyber bullying follows the person being bullied everywhere they go, even to what should be the safety of their own home.
What you can do
If you discover that your child has joined in with online bullying, or has shared a cruel image, talk about why they did it. Explain that it is often difficult to realise you’re being pressured until afterwards, but encourage them to learn from the experience. Recognising the signs will help them identify if it happens again – and next time they may choose to act differently.
Scotland’s anti-bullying service, Respect Me, has excellent advice for parents of children who have exhibited bullying behaviour:
“You change the way people behave by telling them what they did, why it was wrong, and what you expect instead. It’s natural to be angry and upset, but it’s important that you remain calm. When you’ve established the reasons behind the bullying, you have to address their behaviour and the impact that it has had. All behaviour carries consequences and your child has to realise that they are accountable for their actions.”
Read more of our tips on bullying.
It’s natural to be angry and upset if your child has bullied someone, but it’s important to remain calm
Being made to feel bad about their looks
Peer pressure isn’t just about influencing someone’s actions. It can also be about affecting how young people feel about themselves. And while we’re all vulnerable to self-esteem issues, young people’s lives are increasingly lived out on social media, which can bring pressure to look a certain way.
Since camera phones became widely available, young people have been under even greater pressure to look as ‘perfect’ as the stars they follow on platforms such as Instagram or YouTube. The fact that images may have been extensively Photoshopped and those gleaming white teeth are really expensive veneers often doesn’t register with young fans. They see the bright smile and flawless skin and think, “Why can’t I look like that?”
What you can do
Ask them to think about why a celebrity has posted a particular image of themselves on social media. Now ask them what they think went into making that image look perfect. It may seem obvious, but don’t constantly point out your child’s physical flaws or weight gain – and try not to comment on your own in earshot either.
Suggest that they visit the YoungMinds website at vodafone.uk/selfesteem. The specialist mental health charity has really useful tips to help young people feel better about themselves in mind and body.
Figures show that young people in the UK are generally smoking and drinking less than their parents’ generation. But a study of 1,500 15 and 16 year olds in The Journal of Adolescent Health found that social media posts influence young people’s behaviour and can make it more likely that a child will experiment with drinking and smoking.
The study, by researchers from the University of Southern California, revealed that the more pictures a child sees on social media of their friends drinking or smoking, the more likely they are to do the same. The report concluded: “These results provide evidence that friends’ online behaviours should be considered a viable source of peer influence.”
What you can do
Remind your child that both drinking and smoking are illegal if they are underage and that doing either to excess is dangerous. They may feel patronised but, as parents, sometimes it’s our job to state the obvious. (Setting a positive example can be worth a thousand words!)
Point out that pictures of them partying could still be viewable years later, when their social media feeds may well be looked at by prospective employers and other people they want to impress. Today’s fun night out could be tomorrow’s rejected university application or career setback.
This might also be a good time to suggest they make sure their social media privacy settings are set to ‘friends only’.
Radicalisation and extremism
There have been a number of instances of children from the UK becoming radicalised online and joining religious extremist organisations such as the Islamic State group, or becoming involved with racist, far-right groups in the UK.
People looking to radicalise young people use social messaging apps with encryption so that their messages can’t be read by others. Extremists often use friendship to make targets feel part of a force for good – a compelling message for young people who feel powerless and aggrieved.
What you can do
The best thing you can do is listen to your child. Ask them what they do online, who they talk to and where they go. If you take an interest, it will lessen the need for them to go somewhere else for support.
Parent Zone has produced Resilient Families – a free online course for parents and carers that covers all aspects of helping your child to cope with
the challenges of the internet. Episode 2 covers radicalisation and extremism. You can find it at parentzone.org.uk/resilient-families.
For more about peer pressure online, go to parentzone.org.uk/peerpressure and vodafone.com/bestrong. Be Strong Online is a programme developed by Vodafone, The Diana Award and Parent Zone, aimed encouraging resilience in young people in the digital age.