The impact of social media on children
By Kate Hilpern
Children’s use of social media has hit the headlines not for the first time this year, even though we haven’t even got to February.
Children ‘remain an afterthought’ for leading social media companies, Anne Longfield, England’s children’s commissioner, has said. Following the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who killed herself after seeing disturbing self-harm images on Instagram, Longfield wrote to the likes of YouTube, Pinterest, Facebook (which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram) and Snapchat, making two pleas to the industry. First, to back a statutory duty of care so that the safety and wellbeing of children who use their platforms are prioritised. And second, to subsidise a digital ombudsman to act as an independent regulator on the issue of younger users. The NSPCC is among those who welcome her calls, as I do.
But it’s not just down to the social media providers and the government. The picture is more complex. As Longfield pointed out when she made headlines earlier in January, schools also have a bigger role to play, particularly in preparing children for social media’s emotional demands when they hit secondary school. Pupils at this stage, she explained (based on research), hit a cliff edge, becoming fretful about their identity and craving likes and comments for validation, which in turn can cause anxiety and a feeling that they can’t disconnect.
Parents, too, must take more responsibility. Huge numbers – the majority in some schools I spend time in – allow their children, often as young as 8 or 9, to be on platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat where 13 is the minimum age. Many of my year 7 daughter’s friends have it. I suppose the feeling is that there’s no more harm done than allowing a child to watch certain 12-rated movies before they’re actually 12. And it’s easy to assume it’s harmless, particularly if you set the account to private and keep an eye on it.
I’m not sitting in judgement. I did the same with Tik Tok, so I know how easy it is to be hoodwinked. Having researched this global video community (formerly Musical.ly) I decided a private account would be ok. Soon afterwards, a headteacher said she felt Tik Tok was the most risky of all social media to this age group. Dangers include children developing unrealistic expectations of how they should look and behave on the app to become the next ‘star’ and feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. There are inappropriate song lyrics, in-app purchases to the value of around £100 with one click and anyone can see your child’s creations if posted publicly. And, as with all social media channels, most 11-year-olds don’t understand the pitfalls of oversharing and that their digital footprint could shape their online reputation (why would they?) and the fact that not everyone is supportive online can come as a shock.
As for Whatsapp, we’d signed my daughter up the same day she got her phone – on her 11th birthday. It didn’t occur to me that it was anything more than a group messaging system. Until a few weeks later we attended our first secondary school briefing in which the headteacher informed us that WhatsApp's minimum age of use had just been changed to 16 years old if you live in the European Union, or a country that has adopted the GDPR, as the UK has. WhatsApp does not require users to set passwords, a feature that could itself present a danger to children if someone gets hold of their phone and sends a message pretending to be from them. Furthermore, Whatsapp provides no limit on adult content such as nudity or pornography and is practically an open phone directory for grooming.
So I sympathise with parents. And indeed schools. We are all learning – even the government. Sometimes I have this fantasy that by the time this younger generation has grown up, they’ll have the answers because they’ll have grown up with it – unlike dinosaurs like me for whom growing up was hard enough, and yet surely a doddle compared to the pressures this lot are under, what with the phone constantly holding up their vulnerabilities and mistakes to their whole communities (or wider still); the torment of constantly being able to see friends having a wonderful time when they feel they’re having anything but; the dangers of the unrealistic pictures and distressing images; the self-deceit encouraged by social media; the risks of being approached by someone who isn’t who they say they are; and much more besides.
But Molly Russell’s death is a reminder that we need to act now, doing all the things – and more – that Longfield is suggesting. There is growing evidence that for all its benefits (and there are benefits), social media is having a hugely detrimental impact on young people’s mental health. Social media companies must take imminent action in prioritising the safeguarding of young people over their profits; the government needs to play catch up; schools need to be both more involved and consistent; and us parents need to get real, not just with age limits but doing more of our own research and in turn educating our kids.