Tackling social media safety

Online safety

The world of social media moves at such a fast pace that it can be hard to keep up. So, how can we help our children to navigate a healthy online presence?

As a parent, it can be hard not to view social media as something that we should steer our children away from. With the often-repeated advice that screen time is bad, and that there are numerous perils waiting for our kids online, it feels like something we should avoid at all costs. But the truth is, children are online now more than ever.

Social media has become an integral part of our everyday lives. An Ofcom report in 2022 revealed that 89% of 12-15-year-olds use social media, and many children start much younger. TikTok, in particular, stands out for the role it plays as children’s online content platform of choice. UK children spend an average of 114 minutes a day on the site.

Social media symbolsThere are many benefits to being part of the world of online technology. Since the pandemic,
the world has shifted even further online, and this change looks set to be permanent. When schools closed during lockdown, social media offered a lifeline for children to remain connected to the wider world and to stay in touch with their friends.

Social media is popular with young people for a reason. It can help them to form friendships and feel connected with like-minded people. It’s also a great way to access support and gain reassurance during times of change and transition. Through social media, young people can keep up to date with the latest trends, develop skills, increase their knowledge, and discover different viewpoints.

However, if children are online more than ever, it stands to reason that social media has the potential to exert a huge influence. How can we help to make sure they’re staying safe and using online platforms in a way that positively benefits their wellbeing?

Social media use can become compulsive. Even as an adult, it’s hard not to succumb to the endless desire to scroll, particularly when there is so much content to consume. For some children, it can become overwhelming trying to keep up with their friends and respond to messages. It creates added pressure in their lives.

At a time when children are working out who they want to be, social media can fuel unhealthy comparisons. We all know that social media only shows the parts of life that people want to publicise. Pictures can be filtered or airbrushed to impossible standards that can’t be matched in real life. In a survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 40% of young people said that images on social media had made them worry about their body image.

Access to the internet and social media also carries the risk of children coming across content (such as violence, racism, or pornography) that is inappropriate or harmful. In addition, when interacting with others online, children may not be aware of who they are speaking to and could be at risk of being groomed online. In 2021, the Office for National Statistics revealed that around 1 in 10 children aged 13-15 years old had already received a sexual message on social media.

We all know about the risks of bullying, but young people can also be exposed to the same kind of behaviour online, and it’s potentially even harder to control. Cyberbullying increases a child’s risk of becoming isolated and having low self-esteem. Children are more likely to experience being bullied via technology than face-to-face. In a recent survey, 84% of 8-17-year-olds said they had been bullied in this way.

Another downside of internet use for children (and adults, too) is its potential for causing disrupted sleep. Young people who use social media at night may not be getting enough sleep, which can impact their concentration levels in the daytime. Even if they manage to switch off social media, looking at screens beforehand can make it harder to relax and drift off to sleep.

Technology moves at such a fast pace, and – as a parent – it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the huge number of social media sites and apps that are available to your child. So, what can you do to help manage the risks?

Get talking
Going on the internet is a huge part of many young people’s lives, so it’s important to talk to them about online safety and how to have a healthy relationship with social media. It can be difficult to know how to start the conversation, particularly when you’re discussing risks. A factor to consider is your child’s age, which may alter the language you use and how you explain situations to them.

However you do it, the most important thing is to talk regularly and make it a part of daily conversations. Remember to stay calm and open-minded, and show an active interest in their online activities. Listen to what they have to say and help them feel like they can come to you if they have any worries.

As you’re having these conversations, think about what their answers tell you about their online activities. Are the sites they’re using suitable for their age? Do they know how to change the safety and privacy settings on their accounts? Perhaps ask them what they feel their profiles say about them. It’s a great way to encourage children to think about how they present themselves online.

Social media and wellbeing
There’s lots of advice available about how to help your children use social media in a healthy and positive way. During your regular conversations, it’s important to remind them that not everything they see on social media is real or accurate. Talk to them about what they have seen and why it could be questioned, to help develop those critical thinking skills.

Children and social media safetyIn the same way, encourage your child to consider what they should and shouldn’t share online. Explain to them that when they add something on social media, they then lose control of it, because it can be shared and reposted endless times – sometimes worldwide!

Children who spend a lot of time on social media may start feeling like there’s only value in something if it gets lots of likes and comments. Remind them that likes aren’t everything and help them build their confidence in other ways instead.

Encourage the same levels of kindness and respect online as would be expected in the real world. Talk to them about how the way they behave online could affect others. If social media is making them feel sad or anxious, then suggest posting positive comments to others and recommend not responding to negative comments. They should unfollow accounts that make them feel bad about themselves too.

At bedtime, it is sensible to remove all devices until morning.

Taking regular breaks from social media is important – whether it’s listening to music, reading, going for a walk, or playing a board game. It’s worth taking a look at Childline’s online Calm Zone, which offers lots of helpful suggestions for how children can de-stress when they’re feeling down.

Last, but by no means least, you can agree on the use of online safety tools, such as privacy settings and parental controls, between you. Make sure to talk to your child first before making any changes.And remember that you can also block people and report bullying to the social media platform if there’s anything you find offensive.

Setting out a family agreement
One really helpful way to prevent arguments about social media is to agree boundaries up front. A family agreement can be used to outline expectations. Start the discussion around the favourite apps or sites each person uses. How does each family member access the internet? Is internet use affecting the family already, and if so in what way?

Discuss and agree on how much time they can spend online. Maybe you’ll decide that there should be no devices at dinner or after a certain time in the evening. You might also include an agreement on what can be shared and with who. Take a look at whether the games, apps and chat sites are suitable for each person using them.

Talk about expectations of behaviour together. Does your child get upset if they are asked to put the phone down? Is social media interfering with family life? It isn’t a failure if the agreement is broken at any point, instead use this as an opportunity to talk through what happened and what could be done better in the future. Once you’ve talked through the agreement you should record what has been decided, and make sure it works for every member of the family.

But also…
One of the most important things is to be a good role model for your children. Show them how to establish a healthy relationship with social media by doing so yourself. This includes restricting social media use for yourself too and putting the phone away at mealtimes and during family activities. It also means you should ask your child’s permission before posting pictures or information about the family online, and respecting their feelings on the matter.

Dr Poppy GibsonExpert’s View: Dr Poppy Gibson, Senior Lecturer at ARU

Twitter: @poppygibsonuk | Instagram: @drpoppygibson

What are your areas of focus?
Being both a parent and an educator, children’s wellbeing is at the heart of my practice, my research and homelife. I originally trained as a primary teacher, and enjoyed 11 wonderful years teaching and leading in primary schools across London, before completing my PhD and moving into teaching adults as a Senior Lecturer.

Now, I work at Anglia Ruskin University, leading two primary education degrees, where I lecture and guide the next generation of future teachers on their own learning journeys! I recently completed my MSc in Mental Health Science. My research centres on how we can
be mentally healthy and nurture wellbeing, both for our children and in ourselves as adults; because, like the famous saying warns us, you can’t keep pouring from an empty cup!

What are the downsides of children using social media?
My PhD explored how young girls (aged 8-11) were using social media, and the influences that these behaviours were having on their daily lives. Negatives of children using social media often don’t come from the children themselves, but from others posting inappropriate material or saying inappropriate things. It was shocking to hear an 11-year-old tell me a stranger had asked her for nude photos via an Instagram DM (Direct Message). Children can also become ‘addicted’ to the dopamine hit that likes and bright videos give them, meaning they can become detached from people and things around them offline.

How can social media affect children’s wellbeing?
If managed well, social media can support wellbeing. As adults, you may relate to positive feelings you experience when receiving a message from a friend, seeing someone like your ‘status’ on an online platform, or watching or reading something you enjoy. Children can feel and learn in thissameway,butitisuptousas parents, carers and teachers to role model positive use. Worrying about what people think of them, and how many ‘likes’ they get on a post, or
how many ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ they have encourages children to compare themselves to others; this comparison can have a negative effect on wellbeing. Mitigate this risk by reminding your child that numbers of followers doesn’t mean anything; they’re just numbers. There is only ONE of them and they are unique and they matter. Social media is a warped mirror.

Are there benefits to social media use for children?
There are certainly some benefits of social media use, such as removing temporary feelings of isolation through the constant access to online networks. Children are connected to others like never before; it is up to us to encourage them to make healthy connections. Social media is also a great way to learn and grow, and to find people we relate to, such as people with the same diagnosis as us, or the same parts of their identity as us. For children who might not be able to speak to those in their offline network about issues on their mind, they may be able to connect with people on social media with shared interests or worries to find support there.

Do parents have responsibility to help regulate social media usage?
Some social media sites aim to put regulations in place, such as TikTok’s recent 1-hour limit, but honestly the best way to approach this is to role model appropriate device use and encourage your child through your own behaviours. For example, having a ‘no phone while you eat’ policy to make space to talk about your day, or ‘no phones during the movie’; but
if you’re sitting there on your phone, why should they not be? And more importantly, have open conversations with your child about what they are viewing, encourage them to share their favourite videos or reels or influencers with you so you can feel connected through showing interest in their social media use. And remind them that if they see or hear something that upsets them or that they find offensive, that they can always talk to you.

Useful links

Tips on keeping your children safe online

Lego Build & Talk
Activities to help you speak to your children about digital safety

Advice on how to feel good using social media

Breathing exercises, activities, games and videos to help let go of stress and feel calmer

The Conversation
Equipping young people with the emotional and practical tools they need to thrive

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