Life in Likes, the recent report from the Children’s Commissioner on social media use by 8-12 year olds, injected some much needed realism and insight into the debate about children’s adoption of technology.

Social media sites’ terms and conditions may say they restrict users to children aged 13 or over, but there is a steady rise in the use of social media by children much younger than that. Ofcom’s 2017 report, Children’s Media Lives, reported that 28% of 10 year olds have a social media profile, rising to 46% at 11, 51% at 12 and then 72% at 13 when they are ‘allowed’ access.  “Life in Likes” suggested that the figures for under-13’s may well be higher, and that three-quarters of 10-12 year olds now have a social media account.

Informed by focus groups with 8-12 year olds, the Children’s Commissioner’s report suggested that there was a “cliff edge” for children at the transition from primary to secondary school, with increased exposure to online pressures for which they were unprepared. The discussions suggested that this led to children: seeing “likes” as a form of social validation; worrying about keeping up appearances and an online “image”; oversharing personal information; and being anxious at missing out if not connected. As Ofcom’s research also charted a steep hike in smartphone ownership at this point of transition – from 39% of 8-11 year olds to 83% of 12-15 year olds – it is easy to see how the relationship between children and technology can move from being a source of creativity, fun and entertainment in the home environment to one associated with constant social and emotional pressure, both in and out of school.

Far from being “digital natives”, confident in their relationship with tech, children and young people need to be supported, informed and empowered to build resilience, critical thinking and digital literacy. Not just once, as a curriculum tick-box, but throughout their school years and into lifelong learning in order to keep pace with the evolution of technology and its uses. When the Children’s Commissioner also reports that 73% of parents are concerned about their children accessing inappropriate material online, 49% are worried about their children oversharing personal information, and 61% fear social media is an overwhelming distraction (Growing Up Digital, 2017) there has never been more of a need to bring parents along on the journey too, so that the huge benefits of digital technology for their children’s futures aren’t lost in an existential panic about the online world they have entered.

What to do? “Life in Likes” recommended that the Government:

  • Broaden digital literacy education beyond safety messages, to develop children’s critical awareness, resilience and understanding of algorithms, focusing on the transition stage from primary to secondary school.  
  • Inform parents about the ways in which children’s social media use changes with age, particularly on entry to secondary school, and help them support children to use social media in a positive way, and to disengage from it.

So it is positive to see that significant – and coordinated – proposals along these lines are being put forward by the Government through last year’s Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper from DCMS and the joint Department of Health/Department for Education Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health, which is currently out for consultation until 2 March. Both these papers recognise that digital skills are no longer just about coding and child protection online but also about relationships, citizenship and life skills. Indeed DfE’s current consultation/call for evidence (which closes on 12 February) on the introduction of compulsory teaching on Relationships (in primary schools) and Relationships and Sex Education (in secondary schools) includes aspects of digital resilience and critical thinking in the proposed curriculum.

“This decision [to make Relationships education compulsory] was taken in recognition of the fact that children need more support to navigate growing up in an increasingly complex and digital world. Whilst the internet is an overwhelmingly positive development in our lives, it does present significant challenges, particularly for young people. The dominance of social media, the prevalence of cyber-bullying and the risk that children learn about relationships from untrustworthy sources – the evidence was compelling that young people need support to make the right decisions and keep themselves safe online”.

We recognise this need for support and we’re doing our bit at Ci. Read more at the links below: