Social media is now an entrenched facet of our children’s lives and although it provides many benefits such as connectivity and education, it carries many risks, and these frequently have damaging and even fatal outcomes. Issues relating to body image, bullying, declining mental health, risks of being targeted for radicalisation or violent extremism11are the notorious headlines but the addictive and time-consuming pull of social media is felt by many children on a daily and often hourly, basis.
Parents and Teachers have a duty both to protect young people as regards social media but until now, driven by fear, attempts have been made to separate children from social media. That struggle has been lost and considering that 11-16 year olds are spending twice as much time using social media than adults1. Negligent parameters from social media providers, lack of guidance and a backward facing education system are all leading to grave harms for young people.
When parents and teachers are overly restrictive, children’s behaviours can lead to tenacious and inadvertent consequences, as well as restricting access to the benefits of social media, a platform they may well be required to learn about. More than 75% of children start using social media in UK at the age of 10 years2and over 96% of 13-18 year olds use a social media site. This kind of penetration means that digital literacy, digital citizenship, the role of social media and technology in the mental health of young people should be at the forefront of any education agenda.
Technology and especially social media have saturated every aspect of people’s lives. There are many innovative skill sets emerging as a result of generation X growing up with technology integrated into every area of their life; Problem solving and strategy from online gaming, creativity pumping from inspired graphics and multimedia and the ability to engage with a worldwide audience, in real time. Despite being branded as terrifyingly dangerous by anxious parents and media page fillers, Robyn Treyvaud believes that the place she affectionately calls ‘Cyberia’ often has its benefits overlooked and the fears misplaces “Governments and national government organisations focus on the glass half empty” and what’s really important is that young people know how to navigate its complexities.4
Our current teenagers don’t see the difference between ‘online’ and ‘offline’; it is just their life. And whilst the benefits for the well-adjusted, resilient child are great, as outlined by LSE’s Sonia Livingstone, the fluidity of risk for vulnerable children transfers to a greater ‘online risk’5and the dangers associated to this ought to be addressed as part of a relevant, forward thinking educational approach. After all, most children have levels of vulnerability. In spite of having grown up with technology, the issues surrounding puberty, emotional and intellectual change are longstanding and recognised as being a potentially traumatic time. The lines between different types of media and the definitions of different types of digital technology are not always precise and distinctive. Digital technology is a powerful tool. Rather than tackling the hardware, Natterhub believes that parents and schools owe it to our children to focus on the sociology and psychology of this shift in behaviour.
Cyberbullying, whilst harmful and prevalent seems to be an extent of real-life bullying and magnifies the issues when the victims of bullying are able to be targeted 24 hours of every day. According to Trevaud of Cyber Safe Kids, pornography is a greater and more prevalent issue. The normalisation of watching pornography and the pressure that young users feel to ‘expose some skin’ in order to receive attention is going to have long term effects. She says, “We need to be really, really concerned and focusing much more on those sorts of issues because it’s going to have much more significant impact on society, on family, on community and most importantly on the relationships between [young people].”
A vast majority of young people (aged 16-24 years) globally use the internet for social networking both within and outside the school environment. With social media activity described as more addictive than smoking and drinking6, research increasingly finds links between social media and mental health issues. Users are distracted and end up often having more than one screen on at the same time. Families are conflicted by the boundaries necessary to carve out family time and giving children the freedom to explore the pervasive digital aspect of their lives. Time management is a battle on both sides of the family. The pull of social media is strong as this is combined with and fuelled by the teenager’s urge for peer group acceptance7.
That said, there is some light in the social media tunnel; social media platforms can generate a sense of community and provide otherwise hard to find emotional support. With its almost global reach and unprecedented ability to forge connections with people from all walks of life, social media holds the potential to wield a mighty power as a positive catalyst for good mental health8.
As stated in the RSPH report #statusofmind, the rates of anxiety and depression in young people in the UK have risen 75% in the past 25 years and the digital finger has been pointed to social media use for being responsible for these negative outcomes. Additionally, poor sleep (also linked with excessive use of technology) has also been highlighted as a key negative factor affecting young peoples’ lives and outcomes in and out of school.9
Social media is a relatively recent phenomenon that has changed how young people communicate with each other.11If our National Curriculum is to properly prepare children for their future lives, this unparalleled form of communication needs to be part of the core curriculum. The existing evidence on how these types of interactions affect mental health and emotional wellbeing, is shaky and also conflicting. Frith (2017) also highlights the challenge faced by parents (who grew up without social media and who are often less technology-savvy than their digitally native children) in advising their children in how to effectively navigate the online world. Children and adolescents are even more susceptible to peer pressure and lack the capacity for self-regulation as they explore the digital world10.
Rather than place children at the heart of a social experiment, Natterhub has the opportunity to gently, age-appropriately, embed social media education into their treasured school days, model good practice and enable them to be savvier, more aware and more resilient about venturing, cyberwellies on, headlong into their virtual spacewalk.
· Social media is an integral part of our daily life and it is necessary to properly educate children about online navigation in order to promote good mental health, prevent bullying and keep them safe online; it is paramount that schools protect children against the risks of radicalisation and violent extremism
· National curriculum ought to include digital literacy as a major area of the schooling curriculum. Schools need to effectively communicate with their families to provide guidance, offer advice for parents and ensure that teachers are kept abreast of the rapidly evolving environment of the internet. The benefits provided by technology can be far reaching when embedded into a child’s learning process and innovation ought to be balanced against the need to protect them.11
· Children learn effectively using an experiential learning environment. According to Howard Gardner, experiential learning is an active approach and is about cultivating a lesson’s meaning and relevance to the individual. It is about bringing lessons from the abstract to the concrete3.Currently, online safety is taught using a didactic approach. This ‘talk and chalk’ methodology is juxtaposed with the self-directed, exploratory approach used by young children when they use and navigate their first foray through a tech space.
· Educational mindfulness ought to be at the forefront of each school day. Children should be encouraged to think about the cause and effect of all aspects of their social and emotional behaviours. When children can understand the importance of digital scepticism and online resilience, so many of the risks associated with being online are reduced. Combine this with online empathy and the social media platform becomes one that holds great potential for learning, communication and connectivity. Primary schools have a duty of care to update methodologies to mimic real life scenarios, but the national curriculum needs to apportion time for this to be a priority.
10. O’Keefe and Clarke-Pearson, 2011 http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/4/800
11. Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017 NHS Digital, 22 Nov 2018
13. Education, Young People and Social Media, A Policy Paper for the G20