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Can the internet teach your child right from wrong?

Parents fear social media could impair their child's morality

By Katie Wright

If you've been following the recent Kim Kardashian/Kanye West/Taylor Swift spat that has been playing out on Twitter and Snapchat, you'll know that the internet can be a very nasty place - and that it's not just celebrities with millions of followers who are the subject of accusations, abuse and bullying.

So, it's no surprise a new study shows that more than half of UK parents think social media hampers the moral development of their children, with another 40% saying they're concerned, or extremely concerned, about the negative impact of social sites on young people.

The Parent Poll, commissioned as part of the University of Birmingham's project on the influence of parents and the media, also found that only 15% of parents believe social media supports, or enhances, a child's character.

Anger, arrogance, ignorance, bad judgment and hatred were the top negative traits parents reported.

"We are looking to see whether, by viewing certain moral traits, such as empathy, honesty and kindness, as an important part of who you are, you are then less likely to disengage from this moral self online," explains co-principal investigator Dr Blaire Morgan.

"Previous research, for example, has shown discrepancies between how individuals behave online and how they behave offline; this is most clear in the case of cyber bullying.

"Properties of the internet, such as invisibility and psychological distance can encourage behaviours that would not be observed face-to-face."

So, what advice would Dr Morgan give to parents who are worried their children are being affected by what they see on sites like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?

"It's worth noting, first and foremost, that research has shown that there are positive effects of social media on young people - it's not all bad," she says. "Social media has been positively linked to identity-formation as well as social connection.

"However, for concerned parents, there are various strategies that might be helpful; for instance, reminding children of family values and how this relates to behaviour online.

"Discussing how these values translate into online interactions might 'pre-arm' children and prevent issues from arising in the first place."

Encouraging empathy through "inductions" is another technique that could help, Dr Morgan says: "This is where parents encourage their children to reflect on how their actions might affect others. By encouraging individuals to consider their social networks and how posts might impact on others could serve to encourage empathy online."

More research is still to come, with part of the project focusing on which of these techniques is most effective.

"We are explicitly asking children how fair they believe certain regulation strategies are," Dr Morgan explains. "This is an important question as those strategies that are deemed fair are the ones that are most likely to be internalised and subsequently most effective in altering behaviour."

Which is good news, because maybe then we can give them a try them on Kim, Kanye and Taylor ...

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