Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England revealed that 75% of ten to 12-year-olds now have social media accounts and it is during this age bracket that usage becomes problematic, because they lack the knowledge to use technology in a healthy way.
The report identified four main areas of concern and Longfield is now calling on parents to help solve the problem.
“I want to see children living healthy digital lives, that means parents engaging more with what their children are doing online,” she said.
So what are the problems and what can parents do to help?
Becoming Dependent On Likes
The report found that there are two sides to social media - for younger children it helps them to be creative and connected to a world of learning - but as they grow up at secondary school it increasingly becomes a space to seek out validation instead.
This manifests in the form of a focus on the number of likes and comments on their pictures or posts, and having their mood, or feeling of self worth, directly impacted by the feedback they receive.
Dr Linda Papadopoulos, Internet Matters ambassador and psychologist, says: “It’s not a new phenomenon to be concerned about how others see us, but the ability to ask for opinions and call on our peers for constant, instant feedback is new.
“As a result children are deleting posts if they don’t hit their basic ‘likes’ threshold driven by achieving an unrealistic online image, but your child needs to figure out who they are because of them not because of what everyone else is saying.
“As a parent, you need to teach them to question the comments and the likes, that’s really important. Ask questions about the influence of their peer group, and encourage them to think critically about what ‘likes’ really mean.”
Worrying What Their Parents Are Sharing
Children might be oversharing 24/7 but that doesn’t mean they are keen for their parents to do the same.
The Children’s Commissioner’s report found that kids often worry about parents taking ‘unflattering’ or embarrassing photographs of them and then sharing them on social media.
This might mean that they are tagged in them and their friends at school see, before they have had a chance to approve the picture themselves.
When they spend so long deciding which images they want to share online, this can feel like it is undermining that well-cultivated image.
Tony Stower, NSPCC head of child safety online, says: “Talk to your child about their life online. Agree ground rules about what is ok and what is not. This works both ways.”
“As children get older, parents can start to involve them in deciding what pictures to post online. It’s important for them to have a say in what their online profile is, but also for them to learn about the benefits and risks of posting images online.”
Feeling Pressure To Be Online 24/7
Children are also feeling the need to be constantly connected at the expense of other activities - some children even talked about falling out with their friends if they felt they weren’t responsive enough online (even to superficial interactions).
One example of this is during a ‘Snapstreak’ (when using Snapchat) to take part in volley-style-messaging where you must reply instantly so that the ‘streak’ between two friends is not lost or broken.
Dr Linda Papadopoulos says: “The problem with constant posting may be that it is opening them up to receiving more negative or mean comments online, rather than compliments or praise.
“Don’t stop them going online – taking away their devices or restricting usage might make things worse and make your child feel more isolated.
“Instead you need to set a good example with your own device, put in place a family agreement to ensure time boundaries (and be careful not to break it yourself either).
“Allocating ‘screen-free zones’ in your home is a fantastic way of ensuring the whole family unplugs and interacts together offline.
“Technology can actually help - there are apps where children are rewarded for staying away from their tech.
“Parents also need to stress the effects that constant communication can have on sleep and health to help their children make more informed choices about physically disconnecting by switching off at night.”
Adapting Their Behaviour Offline
As well as becoming attached to validation from other people, the report also found that children aren’t just acting this way online but are adapting their behaviour offline too.
This can be made worse by them starting to follow people outside of their immediate family and friends, such as celebrities, and feeling inferior to them.
Dr Linda Papadopoulos says: “We must help children mentally disconnect from the constructed identities they have created online and allow them to gain the freedom to know who they really are.”
Do this by talking to them about what makes them happy, their goals, and their value away from the internet.
“It’s important to talk to them about social pressure, their own behaviour online as well as the behaviour of others, and reassure them that they can talk to you about issues they encounter on social media,” she said.
“As parents we also must help remind them not to put all their self-esteem eggs in one basket and can focus on other attributes other than their appearance.”