The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, recently published of a piece of research she carried out with primary school children about their use of social media.
The study took place in 2017, with eight focus groups, encompassing 32 children aged eight to 12 and aimed to understand the impact of social media on this age group.
Although most social media platforms have a minimum age of 13 for users, research has shown a growing number of children under that age are using the platforms, with three in four children aged 10-12 having their own accounts.
The required minimum age has made it difficult for researchers to investigate the impact of social media in under-13s, and while much study has been done into the effects of social media on teenagers, the impact on primary school children has been thus far largely unknown.
The Life in Likes report shows that the most popular platforms for the eight to 12 age group are Snapchat, Instagram, Musical.ly and WhatsApp. When children begin to use these platforms, there is little routine, but following their transition to secondary school, they quickly get into daily habits of using social media.
Furthermore, the research showed that while parents and schools had successfully ingrained messages in children about online safety from known risks such as predators and strangers, they were less aware of how to protect themselves from other online situations that could affect their mood and emotions.
While the children showed some areas of positive impacts of social media, such as socialising, making friends, keeping in touch with family, etc, it also showed, as expected, some worrying effects. Children at times found it stressful to keep up with conversations, sometimes sacrificing school work to maintain conversations; they orchestrated real-life situations in order to capture social media worthy images and videos, they developed unhealthy and unrealistic expectations of image, and placed a great emphasis on getting likes.
Longfield, in fact, declared that young children ‘are being exposed to significant emotional risk on social media’. The recommendations from the research were for the government to broaden digital literacy in schools: educating children beyond the current safety messages, to develop their critical awareness and resilience and understanding of algorithms, focusing on the transition stage from primary to secondary school.
It was also suggested that parents are informed about the ways in which children’s social media use changes with age, particularly on entry to secondary school, and help them support children to use social media in a positive way and to disengage from it.
Schools were encouraged to improve teachers’ knowledge about the impacts of social media on children’s well-being and encourage peer-to-peer learning as the report showed that children learnt a lot about the platforms from older siblings and family members.
And finally, the social media companies themselves were asked to recognise the needs of children under 13 who are using their platforms and incorporate them in service design or do more to address underage use.
I share the concerns of the Children’s Commissioner about the potential risk of young children using social media. I do feel, however, that in order to properly address this, we need to conduct further research, to have a full understanding of what children are facing through social media use.
At age seven to nine, children are so keen to belong, and their sense of self and self-esteem develops through relationships. If those relationships are built on social media, that’s a very concerning situation, as children of this age don’t have the social or emotional skill sets to manage the situations that could arise.
In addition to the recommendations made in the Life in Likes paper, I would urge parents to provide their children with opportunities to gain their self-esteem, validation and sense of belonging from other situations such as after school clubs, face to face meetings with friends and community-based activities. This will not only encourage them to put their phones down but also to build holistic, meaningful relationships.
Our world is becoming increasingly digital and children will want to have digital conversations, but while I wholeheartedly support age limits on social media, it’s equally not realistic to expect children to hit the age of 13, sign up for various social media accounts and immediately have the skills they need in order to cope with social media.
So it’s important for them to be exposed to safe, age-appropriate social media platforms at primary school age, so that they learn these skills in a safe environment, without having to deal with the more adult issues such as self-esteem and body image that will face them on adult platforms.
And this is where, as an industry, I really feel we can also help to bridge the gap for children. By developing and providing platforms, connected toys and apps specifically for children, which encourage them to share, play and chat with their peers, we are able to provide them with a safe introduction to social media. By providing such products, it’s also our responsibility to begin to equip them with the skills they need to transition to adult platforms as they reach the appropriate age and to support any emerging curriculums at school.
Providing such spaces and products should enable young children to feel involved and give them that all-important sense of belonging, while feeling accepted by their peers, without exposing them to the risks of adult themes and conversations.