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Coming of age in the digital age

Social media has become a huge part of the way we interact in the digital age, but a recent report by Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield paints a worrying picture of young children dependent on ‘likes’ and comments for personal affirmation.


The report, Life in Likes, reveals that 75% of children aged 10-12 have social media accounts – despite platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat stating a minimum age of 13. While children in primary school tend to use social media on their parents’ phones to play games, Ms Longfield warns of an impending ‘cliff-edge’ as they move to secondary school, where the pressure to fit in with peers increases.


Speaking to 32 children aged 8-12, in 8 focus groups, the report found many felt ill-equipped to manage the transition. “They find themselves chasing likes, chasing validation, being very anxious about their appearance online and offline and feeling that they can’t disconnect – because that will be seen as socially damaging” Ms Longfield reports.


This may not be news to many. Dr Sukhi Ruprai, Clinical Psychologist, warns: “Whilst social networking sites offer an exciting portal for learning, entertainment and communication, there are inherent risks that come with this. The pressure to always be available, as well as to present a certain version of oneself, can lead to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and poor sleep.” So what can we do to mitigate these risks and ensure social media remains a positive influence in our children’s lives?


While the study calls on schools to step up to the challenges of social media – recommending digital literacy and online resilience lessons – parents have a part to play too in helping prepare their children for the ‘emotional rollercoaster’ that these platforms can present.


To do that, it can be helpful to bear in mind childhood development milestones. A report by Baroness Kidron and Dr Rudkin, cited recently in the New Scientist, suggests that children are highly dependent on carers until the age of 5, after which they grow in independence and self-reliance until age 11. From the ages of 6-12 they become more autonomous, relying more on peers than carers. Understanding these milestones can help parents judge the suitability of various platforms for their children – and take appropriate steps to prepare them for the pressures they can bring.


Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, encourages parents to review their children’s privacy settings, and look through their list of friends together. It’s also important to have regular, open conversations about the sites they use, so that children feel comfortable turning to parents if they encounter a problem.


Despite concerns, the report states that social media can offer ‘great benefits’ to children. For more suggestions on how to help your child navigate this new world safely, check out this month’s Figtree blog post, where we share our top tips for making the most of social media. Or get in touch with the Figtree team to talk to one of our experts – we’re continually monitoring this rapidly changing landscape, and are always on hand to help.

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