A watchdog has called for teenagers to be given ‘resilience lessons’ to counter the negative impact of social media on their wellbeing.
A ‘Life in Likes’ report by the Children’s Commissioner reveals children face a ‘cliff edge’ in terms of the impact of social media on their lives when they start high school, with many relying on likes and comments for social validation and changing their behaviour to fit with their online image.
While children aged between eight and 10 use social media in ‘playful, creative way’ and to play games, the research shows many 11-12-year-olds become increasingly anxious, with platforms including Snapchat and Instagram making them feel inferior to other users.
The research was compiled after a series of focus groups were held with youngsters aged between eight and 12, many of whom reported feeling a social pressure to be constantly connected and worry about their parents posting pictures of them online without their consent.
Blogging for HuffPost UK, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said the study suggests some children are becoming “almost addicted to likes as a form of social validation to make them happy”.
“Many are increasingly anxious about their online image and ‘keeping up appearances’. By following celebrities and social media bloggers, children are constantly bombarded with images about they ‘should look like’ or what possessions they should own, whether that is trainers, make-up or technology,” she said.
“While social media clearly provides some great benefits to children, it is also exposing them to significant risks emotionally, particularly as they approach Year 7. I am worried that many children are starting secondary school ill-equipped to cope with the sudden demands of social media as their world expands. It is also clear that social media companies are still not doing enough to stop under-13s using their platforms in the first place.”
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has urged social media giants to do more to support the government’s attempts to improve mental wellbeing among children and teenagers.
He criticised Facebook in December for introducing an instant messaging app aimed at young children, telling the company to “stay away from my kids”.
Longfield wants schools and parents to prepare children for a shift in attitudes towards social media at the end of primary school, calling for compulsory digital literacy and online resilience lessons for 10 and 11-year-olds, to help them “learn about the emotional side of social media and not just messages about safety”.
“I want to see children living healthy digital lives,” she added.
“That means parents engaging more with what their children are doing online. Just because a child has learnt the safety messages at primary school does not mean they are prepared for all the challenges that social media will present. It means a bigger role for schools in making sure children are prepared for the emotional demands of social media. And it means social media companies need to take more responsibility.
“Failing to do so risks leaving a generation of children growing up chasing ‘likes’ to make them feel happy, worried about their appearance and image as a result of the unrealistic lifestyles they follow on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, and increasingly anxious about switching off due to the constant demands of social media.”