Secondary school pupils 'ill-equipped to cope' with stress of social media

Children moving from primary to secondary school are ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught of social media which takes on an increasingly important role in their lives, exposing them to significant emotional risk, a report says. Although primary schools are teaching about online safety effectively, the children’s commissioner for England says pupils are not being adequately prepared for the emotional challenges that social media presents as they move to senior school. While eight to 10-year-olds tend to use social media in a creative way, often playing games with one another, this changes when they enter secondary school with the use of platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, where children begin to chase “likes” and positive comments on their posts. The report shows that many children in year 7 – the first year of secondary school when almost everyone in the class will have a phone and be active on social media – feel under pressure to be constantly connected, often at the expense of other activities. They worry about their online image, particularly when they start to follow celebrities on Instagram and other platforms. They are also concerned about “sharenting” – when parents post pictures of them on social media without their permission – and worry that their parents won’t listen if they ask them to take pictures down. Commissioner, Anne Longfield, is calling on parents and teachers to do more to prepare children for the emotional impact of social media as they get older. She wants to see the introduction of compulsory digital literacy and online resilience lessons for pupils in year 6 and 7. “While social media clearly provides some great benefits to children, it is also exposing them to significant risks emotionally, particularly as they approach year 7,” Longfield said, as she published her report Life in Likes which looks at how younger children use platforms designed for older children and adults. “I am worried that many children are starting secondary school ill-equipped to cope with the sudden demands of social media as their world expands. It is also clear that social media companies are still not doing enough to stop under-13s using their platforms in the first place.” The report, which is based on a number of focus group interviews with eight to 12 year olds, says that although most social media sites have an official age limit of 13, an estimated 75% of 10-to-12 year olds will have a social media account. While social media may help younger children be creative and discover things about the world, the report says those approaching their teens and moving to secondary school face “a cliff edge” as social media becomes more complex, with the focus on social interactions and image. Some children are almost addicted to “likes”, the report says. Aaron, an 11-year-old in year 7, told researchers: “If I got 150 likes, I’d be like, that’s pretty cool, it means they like you.” Some children described feeling inferior to those they follow on social media. Aimee, also 11, said: “You might compare yourself because you’re not very pretty compared to them.” Longfield said parents needed to be more engaged with what their children are doing online. “Just because a child has learnt the safety messages at primary school does not mean they are prepared for all the challenges that social media will present. “It means a bigger role for schools in making sure children are prepared for the emotional demands of social media. And it means social media companies need to take more responsibility. “Failing to do so risks leaving a generation of children growing up chasing ‘likes’ to make them feel happy, worried about their appearance and image as a result of the unrealistic lifestyles they follow on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, and increasingly anxious about switching off due to the constant demands of social media.” Tony Stower, head of online safety with the NSPCC children’s charity, echoed the commissioner’s concerns. “We all have a part to play in making sure children are equipped to deal with the online world. “When children reach secondary school, social media plays a much bigger role in their social life. Parents need to ensure they are taking the time to understand their child’s life online and the pressures and challenges they might face when that shift arrives.” One mother, who has stopped her daughter using social media because of concerns about its impact, told the Guardian: “In primary, technology is largely about playing or learning and suddenly they get to secondary and there’s a whole different level. “Social media becomes about fitting in and showing off, just at a time when their self-esteem becomes more fragile as they become more self conscious. My daughter is one of only two in her whole year not allowed on social media. “I’ve told her we’ll reappraise regularly but I’m doing it not so that she won’t fit in but to protect her mental health, so she doesn’t constantly worry about fitting in or who likes what. “Whilst I think there’s a lot of emphasis put on internet safety in primary, I’m not sure they really go into how people you know can actually leave you feeling crap…but that’s very difficult to understand at 10, 11, in my experience.”

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