Social Media and Your Child: Thinking Beyond Stranger Danger

It is obvious to see that social media has drastically changed the landscape for children and teenagers today. It is an unprecedented part of teenage life and as such, a significant influencing factor in the development of friendships, identity and sense of self. It is a landscape changing so fast, it is hard to anticipate the risks and repercussions that might arise, let alone get ahead of them to help children keep themselves safe. Recent research has shown that more than 90% of 16-24 year olds use social media. Perhaps more surprising though, is that it also suggests 75% of 10-12 year olds have social media accounts, despite a minimum sign-up age of 13. Not only does this mean that children, who may not developmentally mature enough to understand the risks of social media, are using it, but it also suggests that, at least a proportion, are setting up accounts without parental supervision or guidance. This is a regular debate amongst parents I have worked with: do you support them if they are going to do it anyway or do you try your hardest to shelter them from this world as long as possible? Concerns such as these are not new to parents however. The impact of television and video games has long been a concern. The impact of online advertising has been a focus of psychological research for some years. No doubt there will be more technological advancements in coming years which will keep us on our toes. In the meantime, what is the likely psychological impact of social media today, and what can we do to protect and support children?

Recent research from the University of Sheffield has shown that the more time children spend on social media, including Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp, the less happy they feel in relation to their appearance, school and family life. Spending just one hour a day on social media, has been shown to reduce the probability of children being happy with their life by 14%. It is hypothesised that this is the result of high levels of self-comparison and skewed perceptions of other people’s lives. Girls have been shown to be more adversely affected. More concerning still is that those who have low self-esteem and are therefore more vulnerable to poor emotional well-being, experience relatively higher adverse effects.

The NSPCC has cited the use of social media as a contributing factor to the increase in hospital admissions as a result of self-harm. Cyberbullying is an increasing issue which social media platforms, schools and parents are struggling to tackle. The pressure on young people to conform and live up to peer expectations continues long after the school gates are closed, with little respite available to those struggling. Sexting and the sharing of explicit photos is another minefield, with changes in the law now making it a criminal act to share naked pictures if you are under 18. There has been plenty of publicity about the risks of naked selfies being shared, or revenge porn. But what is perhaps less understood by teenagers today, is that sharing an image of themselves is, in itself, a criminal act while they are below the age of 18. Despite this, the pressure to engage in this is high, with increasingly skewed perceptions about relationships and body image apparent. Of course, there are also the better understood risks of young people being targeted online; child sexual exploitation is an increasing safeguarding concern which local services are working to tackle.

For those young people who struggle socially, who may not ‘fit’ so easily with their peers, social media can highlight and exaggerate difference as well as feelings of loneliness and isolation. It can be extremely challenging for parents to stay in touch with what their teenager’s online experience might be. How then can you support them with this, particularly when they are likely to understand the technology of social media better than you?

While these possible risks and adverse effects are worrying, the possible benefits of social media when used correctly should also be held in mind. If for no other reason, you will not get very far convincing your teenager that social media has nothing to offer! Social media does allow for connecting with a wider peer group, for supporting interests and hobbies, for creativity and personal expression, for widening our perspectives and insight into how others see the world. So, what key risks do we need to make young people aware of and how can we help them to stay safe?

  • Preoccupation and over-use of social media – often leading to family conflicts and missing out on the world around them. For many it can be used as a safety behaviour for managing social awkwardness which serves to perpetuate anxiety longer term.
  • Heightened comparison to others leading to a poorer sense of self and confidence as well as skewed expectations of body image and appearance.
  • Heightened chance of, or pressure to engage in risky behaviours such as sharing explicit photos. Peer pressure to engage in social interactions they are perhaps not equipped or ready for.
  • Creating an online profile which may do them damage in the future.
  • Cyberbullying
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Exacerbation of difficulties for those vulnerable to low self-esteem, mood or anxiety issues.

For parents and those working with young people, consider the following tips and ideas for supporting children in navigating the world of social media.

  • Make sure you understand social media platforms, their capabilities and risks, as well as the privacy settings and parental controls they provide.
  • Go through privacy settings with your child; show them how to report offensive materials, how to ensure geo-location settings are switched off, and what they might want to consider in their online profiles.
  • It is often best to facilitate open conversations from the start about the use of technology and social media. Modelling transparent communication around such issues can be very helpful when tricky moments come up.
  • Setting age-appropriate boundaries around the use of technology and social media is essential. This might include which platforms they can use, on what devices, and at what times. It might include conversations about how you will check their usage and what parental controls will be enforced. Many parents I have worked with have different rules around this; some have time limits (which devices can support), some expect laptops to stay downstairs in communal areas and phones to be handed in at night, some agree they will look through Facebook pages or flick through WhatsApp messages once a week. The key here is setting this expectation from the start and ensuring it’s understood that this is about helping them to stay safe, not an invasion of privacy.
  • Have conversations about the risks of social media. Facilitate conversations about social dilemmas and problem solving when they arise. This means trying to put yourself in your child’s shoes: consider their world and what would be important or difficult for them.
  • Sensitively challenge signs of excessive self-comparison or unhelpful patterns of thinking.
  • Ensure they have things in their life which provide opportunities for a boost in self-esteem, confidence and mood.
  • Support your child to have a balance between virtual and actual interactions with peers. It is interesting to talk to young people about their online persona and real life persona; how do they differ? Why? How would they respond to a scenario virtually compared to in the playground?
  • Remember, as with anything, they will learn from your behaviour so make sure you are modelling good habits around technology use.
  • Schools are also working to support children’s understanding and learning around such issues. If you do detect concerns or risks connected with online activity, it is always worth liaising with your child’s school. It may be a wider issuer to be tackled within peer groups or may be that they can simply support you in monitoring your child’s well-being or online activity within school hours.
  • Ensure your child knows that they can come and talk to you or other trusted adults if they are ever upset or worried about something. This might mean managing your own anxiety first!
  • It is generally my advice that supporting young people to manage this technology is more helpful than simply restricting it. Managing their online activity through control is only ever going to be a short-term strategy. Supporting them through guidance and influence is likely to be more beneficial. Allowing them to make mistakes and learn from these experiences is difficult but essential long term.
  • Hold in mind risks beyond stranger danger and exploitation. The possible risks to children’s social and emotional well-being are also evident so need to be sensitively supported too.

I work with many children and teenagers who struggle with low self-esteem, anxiety and social difficulties. Social media is inevitably a feature of this work now. If you have concerns about the well-being of your child or feel they could benefit from some support to manage their sense of self, get in touch via