The use of social media is something that defines the current generation of children and young people. Large amounts of social interaction are mediated through it, and its use has been shown to have a significant effect on the potential for mass actions, such as those seen in the uprisings in the Middle-East in 2010 and 2011. No other generation around the world has been so exposed to social as those who are currently coming into maturity, and, as a result, no other generation has been capable of reaping its potential benefits to the same extent as this one. However, alongside these benefits are clear risks. One of the most important of these comes from sex offenders who may use the relative anonymity of social media in order to locate and attempt to exploit vulnerable minors (Rollins, 2015). One of the greatest challenges facing those interested in social media is to develop a system to protect those who need protecting in this situation, while not actively limiting the potential of this media to change the world for the better. This paper will begin by discussing the context within which any restrictions on social media will take place, and it will then actively discuss a plan to ensure the safety of vulnerable individuals.
It is clear that social media has changed the world, both in terms of peoples’ ability to interact with each other from a distance, and also in terms of their ability to perform mass actions. Facebook in particular is something which is embedded in the lives of millions of people around the world and which connects college, high school, jobs and even the military (Westlake, 2008, p. 24). This is something that can clearly be seen to have the potential to change the world for the better. An example of how these changes may come about can be seen in the Arab Spring uprisings in which large groups of people were able to co-ordinate their actions via the websites such as Twitter and Facebook. Osman (2014), notes that the use of this media “enabled large scale meetings and demonstrations to be coordinated and organized in next to no time and with little need for advanced planning’ (p. 880). This ability to co-ordinate in large groups was crucial to the struggle for democracy during these occasions, and it was something that was guaranteed by the free availability of social media technology. Indeed, it is clearly a case that there is a link between the free availability of such media and the democratic values of such a particular country or institution

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It is also the case, however, that social media use carries particular risks for minors and that, as a result, has seen many people call for it to be controlled. Several studies have noted that online communication stands to become an inseparable part of what it means for children to communicate in the future and that, without particular guidelines and protections in place, these children may be put at continuous risk of their communication being intercepted and of them being “groomed” by those who seek to take advantage of them (Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008). Bauman (2013) cites research indicating that the relatively small proportion of youths who are both bullies and victims in traditional bullying rises with a 25.7 percent increase when such bullying is taken to the internet. Cyber-victimization was also identified as ranging between 4-21 percent for 2007, 4-53 percent for 2008 and 3-23 percent for cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is identified as being conducted through phones (7 percent), text messages (8 percent) and online bullying (10 percent) amidst differences in general prevalence rates for single cyberbullying encounters (Bauman, 2013). Cited research by Simmons and Bynum (2014) indicate that 28 percent of middle and high school students being bullied during 2011, which highlights an increase in cyberbullying. Most importantly however, are the various tips provided by the authors that administrators can do in the prevention of cyberbullying incidents at school including establishing a school-wide cyberbullying task force (Simmons & Bynum, 2014)

The cyberbullying danger is worsened by activities of online sexual predators which can be inferred as being fueled by practices like sexting which Rollins (2015) cites research as indicating that 4 percent of teens between 12-17 years send nude pictures through text messages. Additionally, 30 percent of older teens are identified as receiving these sexually suggestive, nude and nearly nude pictures (Rollins, 2015). Kite, Gable and Filippelli (2010) highlight that many students (71 percent) ‘do not think that an Internet predator will contact them based on postings online’ while ‘63 percent do not fully understand the potential risk of Internet predators (i.e., their ability to track students on the Internet)’. Knopf (2015) links cyberbullying to mental health as well as substance use problems with reports indicating 18.9 percent of victims suffering from depression, 4.8 percent for suicide attempts and 6.4 percent for prescription drug misuse. The authors also identify that ‘odds of substance use problems and externalizing problems were lower in girls than boys, and the odds of internalizing problems were higher in girls than boys’ (Knopf, 2015). Carter and Wilson (2015) even refer to cyberbullying as a 21st century health care phenomenon due to increases in associated incidents (30 percent). More revealing is the number of adolescents involved in online activities; ‘access to computers (92%), email accounts (88%), social networking accounts (e.g., FacebookTM or MySpaceTM) (82%), and cell phones (79%)’ (Carter and Wilson, 2015).

While it is the case that active control over social media should not be encouraged if one is to be able to realize its potential, it is also the case that this potential may be used in order to solve potential problems regarding safety. Indeed, as Brown & Keller (2000) note, all media may be used in order to facilitate a message of safety and care (p. 70). According to these authors, it is possible to take advantage of exposure to media to spread particular messages. The authors themselves prioritize the message of safe-sex, however it is equally possible that social media could be used in order to spread a message of care and caution with regard to making contact with people who are unfamiliar. Facebook allows the use of adverts which are tailored to a particular users browsing patterns and “likes,” and it is entirely conceivable that messages of safety could be spread through this media in order to encourage vulnerable individuals to take all proper precautions. Such an active promotion would not involve placing active restrictions on the use of social media, but would enable vulnerable to people to be empowered. In particular, this could be combined with the use of the same techniques to facilitate parental education about the potential risks of social media for children and the importance of maintaining an awareness of a child’s activity. In this way, social media could be used in order to make itself safer for children, without actively damaging the capacity for other people to use it and to benefit from it. Despite the risks, however, it is also clear that anyone wishing to minimize them must bear in mind the importance of maintaining the internet as zone of free communication.

In conclusion, this paper has argued that the invention and spread of social media is clearly a hugely important development and that it has already proven to be a force for good in the world. Anyone wishing to pay attention to the way in which children may be made safer when using this media must bear in mind how to avoid restrictions that would interfere with its positive elements. As such, it has proposed a solution to the dangers of social media that would involve using this media to spread messages of safety and to encourage children and vulnerable to make clearly informed decisions about who to be friends with on social media, and how to relate to people with whom they have contact. Likewise a similar system could be used to educate parents about the danger and potential benefits for their child. Such a system would involve using the strengths of social media itself, rather than restricting it further.

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