With recent headlines claiming social media safeguards to be “inadequate” and conflicting views on what constitutes “healthy screen time” for young people, how do we separate fact from fiction in this increasingly politicised debate? 

Recent evidence from the Children’s Commissioner and our Safer Internet Day findings show a rise in the number of children with social media profiles below the “restricted” age of 13 and over, exposing them to content and interactions inappropriate for their age. Social media companies must take more responsibility to ensure their users are protected and safe and that age verification systems are doing their job. But this isn’t the whole story, nor is it the complete solution in the long term. 

Ci responded to the Science and Technology Committee’s recent inquiry into the impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s mental health. We recommended that: 

  • Social media companies take greater efforts to verify the age of their users and gain appropriate consent for new and current users. 
  • Social media companies consistently record and report on the nature, volume and outcomes of complaints and reports made within their systems by children and young people. (1)
  • Industry-level initiatives be independently evaluated to understand how long-term reduction in harm and improvement in wellbeing can be achieved. Learning should be shared and applied to promote consensus amongst company policies and initiatives. (2)

It is imperative that Government helps social media companies collaborate and report issues, so there is a better understanding of how to prevent and tackle negative online experiences. We are therefore pleased to support the calls for an independent Internet Commission to take this forward.

However, we believe it is equally important that Government builds up a solid evidence base in this area before next steps are taken. The complexity and pace of technological change and the context of children’s digital lives requires rigorous, nuanced research before we can draw informed conclusions to inform new policies or legislation. So we also asked for more longitudinal research that takes the granularity of children’s lives into full consideration in our response. The content that children and young people access and the context will ultimately determine what has a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Until this is known, the combative dialogue between Government and big tech firms will continue, whilst children’s, parents’, carers’ and educators’ voices are lost. Limits to screen time will not fix this. 

Research shows that young girls are increasingly reporting higher levels of negative impact than boys - this must be interrogated more closely. We recommended that new research focuses on gender as a control factor, so we can get to the root of this problem. It is vital that we understand how the content is tailored differently towards boys and girls and what this means for children’s mental health and wellbeing in the long-term. Much of this could be attributed to societal expectations on girls and women, as opposed to the social media platforms themselves. They are often a conduit for issues that already exist. Parents and carers must be supported to have open conversations with children on self-esteem and confidence to build their resilience and prevent issues from spiralling online. 

We also advocated for programmes that help educators, parents and carers work with children to develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. As our world changes at an increasingly fast pace, it is essential that children develop empathy, resilience and creativity in their approach to life; what we term “life skills”. Children and young people will continue to rely on digital technology to build and maintain social relationships, develop professional profiles and participate in our globalised, connected world. We risk excluding children from the benefits that come with increased access to digital technology if we only focus on the negatives. 

We believe Government must look closely at our current education system and determine whether this is fit for purpose. With the never-ending pressure placed on children through rote learning and knowledge-based examinations, they will continue to be ill-prepared for our fast-paced and changeable world. 

We need updated curricula and guidance for educators so they can support children for the changing future of work, with healthy attitudes towards technology and an open, lifelong learning mindset. Children and young people need strong digital media literacy to better prepare them for our fast-paced online world. They will be the inventors of the world’s future technology. They should be equipped to decide what is right for them and supported to grow the behaviours and skills they need to thrive. 

We want to contribute to the much-needed national evidence base and find out how we can support children to have healthier, positive online experiences. We are developing a community-led project to tackle some of these issues in Corsham. Look out for further details in the coming months.

(1) https://youngminds.org.uk/media/2190/pcr144a_social_media_cyberbullying_inquiry_summary_report.pdf

(2) http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/84956/1/Literature%20Review%20Final%20October%202017.pdf p.8 2017