Do you ever worry about your own social media use? Meet Bridie, a Year 7 among the sample of eight- to 12-year-olds recently interviewed by a team working for the Children’s Commissioner.
Quizzed about her own online habits, the youngster took moment to tot up time spent on platforms collectively labelled ‘social media’. “Hmmm, 24 hours in a day, so I probably use it… 18 hours a day.”
It’s a figure that must surely eclipse the usage of the 45th president of the United States of America. And that’s saying something.
But Bridie’s not alone. More than a third of 15-year olds can be classed as ‘extreme intent users’ according to a report published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) in June.
The six-plus hours such teens spend online include social media use before and after school, an activity 94.8% of UK 15-year-olds indulge in.
Researchers for the EPI found users at the higher end of the spectrum are more likely to experience bullying and mental health problems.
The report’s authors urged the Government to act on its expressed intention to prioritise mental health by exploring issues beyond safeguarding, and working to develop young people’s ‘safe participation in increasingly complex digital environments’.
And the EPI is not the only professional body sounding the alarm.
A toxic impact
Concern over the impact of tech spiked in January; the British Psychological Society publicly called for research on the ill effects of screen time; the Duchess of Cambridge spoke publicly about the addictive nature of social media.
Finally, and most significantly, Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield published a report titled Life in Likes that explored the effects of social media on eight to 12-year-olds.
Thirty-two children like Bridie, from four locations across England, shared the enjoyment and anxieties of using sites such as Snapchat, Instagram, Music.ly and Facebook. The findings, predictably, make depressing reading.
Recommendations to Government laid out in Life in Likes include requiring a sharper focus on ‘digital literacy’ in schools, broadening messages beyond safety to develop ‘critical awareness and resilience and understanding of algorithms’.
It also suggests schools themselves should ‘improve teachers’ knowledge about the impacts of social media on children’s wellbeing and encourage peer-to-peer learning’.
So what does that mean? “We need to give children the information, power and resilience they need to thrive in today’s digital world,” says Anne Longfield.
“That means parents making sure their children have a healthy digital diet, social media companies taking more responsibility for protecting children from the internet’s negatives side, and Government working with schools to teach children the practical and emotional skills they need.”
“It makes sense for all four-to-fourteen year olds to learn how to get the best out of the internet, while avoiding some of the dangers,” she continues. Crucially, Anne recognises the need for a curriculum that helps pupils “both disengage and engage with the online world.” So how is that process paying out for schools?
St Henry’s Grammar School in West Yorkshire has more cause than most to act on Anne’s recommendations. As Children’s Commissioner for England’s alma mater, St Henry’s takes the issue of student wellbeing very seriously. So have staff there managed to help pupils ‘disengage’ from social media during the school day?
“I think we’ve been as successful as any school in terms of our PSHE and behaviour systems, but there’s no way we’ve eradicated it,” says assistant head Phil Temple. “Far from it. Despite all our efforts there are still students who are desperately keen to access social media. They’ll do it whatever the educational work you do with them and whatever the sanctions you put in place. [Social media] is going to be there and you’re going to have to work with it as best you can.”
As head of learning support, Phil is especially interested in keeping students focused on their classes. Strong firewalls and constant monitoring keeps students on the straight and narrow while using the school-issue iPads each student carries, but mobile phones using 4G are harder to regulate.
“We don’t see disruption in class particularly, because of all the things we have in place,” says Phil. “Bigger issues for the school are bullying and the online safety of pupils. That’s disruptive on students’ progress and their self-confidence and self esteem; there’s a holistic impact on kids.”
Risks and rewards
It’s not hard to find examples of the wreckage students have to pick through when they become entangled in the thornier problems presented by a life online.
‘Sexting’ that gets shared around; naked Snapchat selfies that someone screenshots and archives; even just the basic misunderstandings created when communications are typed in consonants and emojis on a public platform.
Suddenly the technological issues our generations faced at school look terribly tame.
Keeping social media in its box, and helping students cherry pick the good stuff and avoid the bad, is an ongoing battle.
For Phil Temple, it’s essential students are properly supported through their explorations of online social spaces.
“It’s [teenagers’] job to make mistakes and learn from them. We acknowledge that, and encourage it, and we did a consultation with parents recently about managing risk that got some great feedback. We know the internet is a wonderful thing in lots of ways. There’re lots of positive things about social media and we don’t want them to be locked away from it. Kids just need to learn to manage the negative bits as well.”
Where it’s at
The Children’s Commissioners ‘big five’ social media platforms
Snapchat gained notoriety on launch as the ‘sexting’ site thanks to a format that deleted friend-to-friend photos ten seconds after posting. Six and a half years on the app has evolved broader appeal (and ten million daily users in the UK) thanks to regularly updating save and replay functions, funny filters, and semi-public ‘Stories’.
The one where users curate a rose-tinted (often literally) grid of their photos, adding popular hashtags to attract likes and followers. Launched in 2010, Instagram revolutionised the way we use our phones (it debuted as an iPhone app), though business-friendly functions have ushered in more commercial content.
With 70 million users registered since its 2014 launch, Musical.ly allows its users (or ‘Musers’) to create and share music videos, often lip synching, that play with dance routines, video effects and sound filters. The work of Stuttgart twins Lisa and Lena (also showcased on YouTube) gives an… ahem… informative example of the genre.
A free messenger service to rival anything a standard mobile phone network can offer, WhatsApp allows users to send text, photos, videos and sound clips – or hold voice calls – to other users. The group chat function, and its ‘end-to-end encryption’ are part of the attraction for WhatsApp’s one billion global users.
Launched waaaay back in 2004, Facebook really is the grandaddy of social media. It hosts a broad demographic of users (who number two billion globally) – and therefore has limited appeal to teenagers looking for unsupervised spaces online.
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