internetBy now, most parents are aware of the online excesses that school kids are indulging in on social networking sites like Facebook, but many are shocked when they find it in their local school or their own home.

That is the message coming out of conferences around the globe, along with warnings that parents need to take a more proactive approach with their children’s internet activities.

In the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently hosted a conference in New Orleans at which it empasised that “growing media platforms touch on virtually every health concern pediatricians have about young people: aggression, sex, drugs, obesity, self-image and eating disorders, depression and suicide — even learning disorders and academic achievement”.

Chairman-elect of the Academy’s Council on Communications and Media, Dr. David Hill offered some advice to pediatricians that clearly should also be embraced by parents. He said to “help children behave in ways that keep them healthy and safe, we have to pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in social media”.

“This is an uncontrolled experiment we’re running right now,” he told CNN. “How does the human organism — particularly the developing brain — adapt to this kind of input? These are questions we are tackling.”

The conference examined some hard facts now available on social media. For instance, according to a 2010 Neilsen survey the average teenager sends 3,400 texts a month – more than 100 a day. And according to statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation young people are also spending close to eight hours daily in front of various electronic screens — “more time than sleeping, school or any other activity”.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says parents need to be up-front about their right to monitor their children’s online activities. “In early adolescence, it’s fair to say at any given moment, ‘I can look at your computer; I can look at your phone,’ ” Mr Hill said.

And when parents find any unacceptable behaviour they need to step in. For instance, if a discussion group is getting out of hand, it is acceptable for a parent to insist their child stop using Facebook for a period of time. Some parents even find their kids are relieved to be able to opt out and tell their peers that it is because of their parents. Mr Hill added:

Teens actually want and need limits on their behaviour. They need to know you are dedicated to keeping them safe and looking out for them. Sit down and watch their favorite show; have them show you the websites they are interested in. You might be surprised at how much your teen welcomes your attention — and how much you’ll learn about what’s going on in your child’s brain by sharing some of that time.

Mr Hill also reminded parents that they need to model good behaviour themselves:

If you text or check your e-mail while driving, if you bring your cell phone to the dinner table or leave the TV on in the background, you are not demonstrating the sorts of behaviors that you would want your children to display.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand another conference has drawn attention to the escalation of cyberbullying with the appearance of new anonymous sites that invite students at particular schools to come forward with graphic confessions about other students and teachers. More than 100 cyber experts registered for the conference in Wellington which was organised by internet safety group NetSafe to investigate issues of cyberbullying, online privacy, and human rights.

NetSafe Operations Manager Lee Chisholm said the organisation had been dealing with complaints about confession pages for the past six to eight months from schools, parents and students: “Some of it is outright lies about other students. A lot of it is sexual and it can be about teachers as well as students.”

Through the sites, thousands of teenagers are being exposed to graphic sexual material, violence, drug abuse and high levels of profanity. According to The New Zealand Herald the Facebook pages have also turned into “forums for abuse and harassment, with teens posting offensive photos, descriptions of sexual encounters, drug-use on campus and naming and shaming peers”. The Weekend Herald found 55 schools in the Auckland and Northland region associated to such pages, and 26 linked by the student users to “graphic sexual material, profanity, alcohol or drug-use at school or tormenting of other students”.

Most of the pages set no boundaries. One site tells users: “Got some confessions? Big, small, dirty, innocent, lovey, whatever it is … send it in.” Another reads: “I am not responsible for all hateful material on this page. So send it all … your confession 100 per cent anon.”

Netsafe said it had reached a desperation point with schools which were trying to remove the pages because of the offensive material and the repercussions they were having to deal with, such as bullying at school.

Social media expert Simon Young said much of the attraction for students sharing on such sites was the guaranteed anonymity and the idea that they could say anything they liked and not be caught. “It’s power,” Mr Young said. “That’s the amazing thing about social media. It gives everybody with a computer a voice … anyone can be a media person.” Mr Young said cyber-bullying had taken on a whole new level because of the confessions pages and the bullying had expanded on to the playground. “People have always told stories about each other and there’s always been a dark side,” he said, “but it’s now much more public.”

William West

William West is a Sydney journalist.