WhatsApp, Snapchat and Facebook are the go-to social networks for many young people. For Erica (aged 15) and Chiara (aged 13) who recently moved from Italy to the UK, they are crucial for staying connected with friends, old and new.
“The internet became vital when we moved. Keeping in touch with my friends is the only way to still have them near me and I think Messenger calls, Skype and WhatsApp saved our relationships,” explains Erica. “I can share everything I do here in London with both English and Italian friends and I can show my new friends my life in Italy through earlier Facebook posts and Instagram pictures. Social media has also helped me to meet friends of friends in a safe way and many have become the best friends I have here.”
Technology helps the family to stay connected
"Technology and social media help a lot for keeping in contact with my friends here and in Italy,” adds Chiara. “There is a difference in the way I use social media though. With my British friends, the conversation online seems to be more superficial as I know I can speak to them in person. Without technology, I would have probably lost the connection with my Italian friends but I also know that virtual relationships are not enough and I miss seeing them.”
Dad Marco, who works for Vodafone, agrees that technology helps the family to stay connected.
"The way the girls use social media is always changing so I need to keep on top of it,” he comments. “There’s an interesting phenomenon... they didn’t speak much English before we moved here but now they understand everything and speak fantastic English. They are like sponges. They socialise and communicate on social media and it really helps with their written English.”
Upsides and downsides
As well as the many benefits of social media, it has thrown up some challenges for the family.
Chiara acknowledges that posts are sometimes misunderstood and Erica points out that some of her peers don’t understand how long comments and pictures remain online.
For Marco, screen time is one of the biggest challenges and the family has a no-phone rule during dinner. As he explains: “My eldest daughter is constantly recording her life on Snapchat and thinks that she has to be available online all the time. Whenever her phone beeps with a WhatsApp group message, she wants to respond straight away. I tell her there’s no need to rush. Funnily enough, she only agrees about that when it’s mum or dad messaging her!”
Like many parents, he is also concerned about his daughters’ digital reputation but admits that adults think of privacy differently to children.
"We want to encourage Erica and Chiara to express themselves but they don’t always consider who might see what they post online," he says. "It's tough for young people to understand that a future employer could look them up, for example. We’ve had a couple of discussions about whether particular photos are appropriate and ended up removing them."
Marco, who previously worked in internet safety at Microsoft and has written a book in Italian on the subject, explains how openness and good sense rules have helped his daughters’ digital confidence to grow. A two-way contract with agreements such as “If something happens online, I’ll tell you” (for the kids) and “I promise not to embarrass you online” (for the parents) has also been very useful.
“My parents told me what to be aware of and not to post things that are going to affect me or others in a bad way,” comments Erica while Chiara adds: “When I see something wrong or I feel uncomfortable, I know that I can go to my parents and they can help me.”
As Marco says: “We’ve been able to go on a journey with our children so that they have a positive experience with technology. They use it to its full potential but without getting into trouble. And, because we respect their privacy, they still come to us when they have questions or concerns. Trust is very important.”