The responsibility of brands engaging with children online

On 15 November, thousands of brands, celebrities, organisations and ordinary people will join The Big March, a virtual march against bullying organised by the charity Beatbullying as part of Anti-Bullying Week. Tamara Littleton, CEO of eModeration, explains more.

As brands turn to online environments, social networks and virtual worlds to engage with a younger audience, the responsibility they have to keep them safe within those environments is becoming increasingly clear. Teenage brains are still developing and, according to a study by Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at the US Temple University, this lack of maturity results in an ’underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’ ’impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions’, and a greater likelihood of being subject to peer pressure and negative influence.

Apply this to an online environment, and it becomes easier to understand why we so often read stories of teenagers posting open invitations to parties on Facebook that result in chaos; or showing inappropriate photos or videos of themselves (and others) online that so often lead to embarrassment later in life; or in the most tragic cases, to bullying that results in suffering and even suicide.

Children behave differently online. The perceived anonymity offered by the Internet can lead to ’disinhibition’, or ’flaming’ – expressing thoughts that, if they had to be expressed in person, would be left alone (or at worst recorded in a private diary). The immediacy of the online and mobile world means that private thoughts, pictures and videos are broadcast instantly to a potentially global audience. At an age where they are still finding their individual voices and identities, children stick to the safety of the pack.

Social networks where you can display your friends as a badge of popularity, becoming a ’fan’ of a cool brand online, and ’befriending’ celebrities are all markers of social currency, displayed to peers in the online world. This, combined with the boldness that comes from operating behind the apparent safety of a computer or mobile screen, means that often children are more likely to bow to the peer pressure of the group, and experiment in behaviours that, in the ’real’ world, might wait until they were older.

Brands engaging with teens and tweens online need to understand how they operate in this environment, in order to develop communities that engage them, but also keep them safe – not just from predators or fraudsters, but often from their own actions. In a branded community such as a virtual world or Facebook page, managing this age group has to tread the fine line between allowing children the freedom of expression they so crave, and keeping them safe from actions they could regret later in life. Heavy-handed community management or moderation will turn them away from the brand, but equally, setting boundaries for acceptable behaviour – and being consistent in applying them – is important. Brands have to earn trust and respect, particularly from older tweens and teens, but they also have a duty of care to keep young audiences safe, both from the outside threats and from the consequences of their own inappropriate behaviour.

A good community manager and moderator for a brand will behave as a sort of ’guardian’, stepping in if a situation gets out of hand, and spotting potential threats (such as grooming behaviour) in the children’s community. They will inhabit the online world, and understand the drivers for children’s behaviour.

It is only by understanding the online behaviour of children and teenagers that brands can create an online environment for them that is both engaging, and safe.

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