New report suggests social media is a ‘cliff edge’ for Year 7 children

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has published a new report examining how social media affects children: particularly those starting secondary school aged 11.

The Life in Likes report highlights some big worries for parents about the “cliff edge” that these children encounter as they enter year seven — their first year at ‘big school’. It’s based on a limited sample, eight focus groups with 32 children aged 8–12 in October and November last year, but presents some findings that will ring a bell with many parents.

“While 8–10s use social media in a playful, creative way — often to play games — this changes significantly as children’s social circles expand in Year 7,” explains the report’s summary. “The report shows many Year 7 children are finding social media hard to manage and becoming over-dependent on ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ for social validation. They also adapt their offline behaviour to fit an online image.”

Other findings from the report include children’s anxiety about their online image — especially when they start to follow celebrities and others outside their close friends and family — and the pressure they feel to be “constantly connected at the expense of other activities”.

The report also coins a new term for a trend that’s been around for a while: “sharenting”. That’s when parents post photos and videos of their children on social media without their permission.

Longfield has chosen her words carefully when describing the report’s findings: this isn’t something that could or should be seen as an attack on social media. It’s constructive — but also plain-spoken — criticism.

“While social media clearly provides some great benefits to children, it is also exposing them to significant risks emotionally, particularly as they approach Year 7. I am worried that many children are starting secondary school ill-equipped to cope with the sudden demands of social media as their world expands,” said Longfield.

She thinks that parents need to be engaging more with what their children are doing online — and that they should be given advice to help them understand the cliff-edge that their kids will encounter in year 7 — but also thinks that social-media services and schools alike need to up their efforts.

“It is also clear that social media companies are still not doing enough to stop under-13s using their platforms in the first place,” added Longfield.

“I want to see children living healthy digital lives. That means parents engaging more with what their children are doing online. Just because a child has learnt the safety messages at primary school does not mean they are prepared for all the challenges that social media will present. It means a bigger role for schools in making sure children are prepared for the emotional demands of social media. And it means social media companies need to take more responsibility.
“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.”

Longfield thinks schools should broaden their ‘digital literacy’ education beyond their current focus on safety “to develop children’s critical awareness and resilience and understanding of algorithms, focusing on the transition stage from primary to secondary school”. Meanwhile, she calls on social media companies 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”.

There’s a sensitive line to walk here. If the social-media services admit there are lots of under-13s using their apps and sites and launch special profiles and features for them, they can be criticised for ‘targeting’ underage children – as happened recently when Facebook announced plans for a kids’ version of its Messenger app. But burying their heads in the sand and adopting a ‘well, they shouldn’t be on here’ approach doesn’t seem to be serving children and parents either.

The Life in Likes report will hopefully reignite these conversations. It’s already sparking responses from the technology world. Julia Adamson is director of education at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, which has been involved in the evolution to the way children are taught computing skills in schools. She has published a blog post giving her response to Longfield’s report:

“The report underscores the need for children (and their parents) to have a broad social and technological understanding. We have made some progress in ensuring we educate children about computational thinking, and it is great to see the Commissioner so clearly highlight the importance of understanding of algorithms … but, we’ve still got so much further to go.”

Adamson also highlights another aspect of the report: children worrying about how their parents are using social media, rather than just the other way around.

“It is incumbent on everyone working in technology to understand not only how children are using what they create, but to see their role and their responsibility in ensuring this is the best we can make it for those children. It is incumbent on all with a role to play in the social issues and the technology to work together at a national scale to bring about a better set of outcomes.
On a local level, all of us with some measure of understanding and contribution need to be connected to and participating in our community educational activities to ensure that our friends and neighbours are aware of how they can make a positive difference to children and their digital environment.”

It will be interesting to see how Facebook (including Instagram), Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, Musical.ly and other social media services respond to the report in the coming days, and how politicians here in the UK can take action that is thoughtful and effective, rather than knee-jerk and ineffectual.