Children in Britain today are growing up on social media. Whilst most sites require users to be over the age of 13 to join, research suggests that three quarters of 10-12 year olds have social media accounts. This means that as parents, teachers and other adults responsible for their wellbeing, we need to consider what role social media is playing in shaping young people’s sense of self.
My new report ‘Life in ‘Likes’’ published today, uses focus groups of children aged 8-12 to explore the different ways children interact with different social media platforms such as Roblox, Instagram, Snapchat and Whatsapp. This report reveals many children are approaching a ‘cliff edge’ as they transition from primary to secondary school, with social media becoming much more important in their lives but causing them greater anxiety.
The study suggests some children are becoming almost addicted to ‘likes’ as a form of social validation to make them happy and that 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: “If you don’t have designer and expensive things people will make fun of you” said one of the 11-year-old children we spoke to for the report.
Given that many adults have spoken about the social anxiety that comes with using social media, it’s no surprise that these feelings are mirrored in children and young people. As children spend increasing amounts of time online as they grow older, there is a growing pressure to be constantly tuned in, with feelings of inferiority or social insecurity generated as a result. For many starting secondary school that pressure becomes an avalanche from new peers they are keen to impress, all with smartphones and social media accounts. It can be a very public way of growing up.
'If you don’t have designer and expensive things people will make fun of you' said one of the 11-year-old children we spoke to for the report
However, some of the views expressed by children in my report were very positive. For example, it’s clear that using social media gives many children opportunities to be more creative. It can be a way of making them feel better if they are sad. One 11-year-old girl told us: ’If you’re like really stressed or something and you watch a really satisfying slime video it makes you like calmer.” The report also shows how children have a greater awareness of the importance of internet safety. Many of the children cited tips like not posting photos in their school uniform, or of their house numbers, methods of maintaining privacy and staying safe online.
What this study ultimately demonstrates is how children are articulating their relationship with social media in a way that calls for a more robust response from parents, schools and the social media companies. This report makes clear recommendations to government, schools and parents to help young people develop the resilience they need for the online world. For example, parents need to consider how a number of children raised how ‘sharenting’ (when a parent shares a post about their child on social media) made them feel self-conscious and at times, embarrassed. Parents also need to be more tapped into how their children are using social media and what support or guidance they might need to build better resilience.
It means a bigger role for schools in making sure children are prepared for the emotional demands of social media and ensuring that children can grapple with concepts like algorithms and targeted advertising. And, I want social media companies to take greater responsibility for the ways they influence and impact children’s experiences of using social media.
I want to see children living healthy digital lives. 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.
Anne Longfield OBE is the Children’s Commissioner for England