This report from the Children’s Commissioner for England – Life in Likes – is something I’ve been waiting for. What we’ve had up till now is a dominant focus on the safety aspects of online life at the expense of understanding the emotional costs. And, when we do consider emotional costs, that has often been weakly supported by evidence and too often consists of hand-wringing, gloomy predictions and judgmental comments. There has also been a lack of distinction between teenagers and a crucially important younger age: those just starting secondary school.
Life in Likes includes the words, “Parents and schools had successfully ingrained messages in children about online safety from known risks such as predators and strangers. Yet children were less aware of how to protect themselves from other online situations that could affect their mood and emotions.” Exactly.
It makes essential reading for all adults who care about children’s and teenage social media use and what it might do to them. My forthcoming book, The Teenage Guide to Life Online, describes the positives and negatives of this still-new way of living. The positives are huge; the negatives, also potentially huge, simply need to be understood in order that they can be avoided. And don’t worry: it’s far from impossible to do that!
If we are to help people of all ages avoid the emotional problems that can come from using and overusing social media, we have to know the score, to coin a phrase from the battle to stop drug use. We have to stop running around liked panicking chickens telling everyone that the sky is falling in. If we understand the facts, we are a long way towards working ouot the solutions. If, for example, we understand the addictive and tempting properties of our smartphones (etc) then we can realise that we will need to use some of the same techniques as if we were trying to stop people doing any of the other things they are tempted to do because of the pleasure result: eating chocolate, for example. When you decide not to eat a second chocolate brownie, you do so because, first, you know there’s a good reason not to. Thats not always enough but it’s the necessary start. You have to know what that second brownie will do – that knowledge helps your self-control. If you don’t know, why would you not eat it, the gorgeous melty thing?
Similarly, knowing what over-use of or reliance on social media can do helps us avoid it. It’s not always enough, but it’s the necessary start. Understanding it properly, not vaguely; understanding the psychology and the biology of online use and social behaviour.
That’s the understanding that this report will give and which my own work, whether writing or speaking around the world, aims to share.
The report also includes some recommendations. For schools, “While children have internalised messages around ‘online safety’, they are not always aware of the subtler impacts that social media use can have on wellbeing. Teachers should incorporate awareness of this into education about life online. This research shows that children learn a considerable amount from their peers and older siblings. A peer-to-peer element in digital literacy education would provide children with a more accessible and relevant way to learn about life online.” Parents are also encouraged to talk about the positives and negatives.
So, do the report and get to grips with what’s really happening, what it’s actually like for young people entering secondary school and an online world which is glittering, tempting, delicious – and psychologically battering. You can’t hide them from it but you can give them the tools not to get hurt.