Laid bare: The worrying influence of social media on year 7 pupils

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

New research into the effects of social media is warning of a generation of children who are growing up chasing ‘likes’ and online validation to make them feel happy

A warning has been sounded over the deep and worrying influence that social media is having on children as they start at secondary school.

Despite the fact that many social media channels have a minimum age limit of 13, an investigation by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, has highlighted the fact that three-quarters of children aged 10 to 12 now have social media accounts.

The report – Life in Likes – focuses on social media use among eight to 12-year-olds and warns that children are hitting a “cliff edge” when they start secondary school.

This is because in year 7 their social circles begin to expand dramatically and their use of social media changes “significantly”.

Primary pupils tend to use social media in a “playful, creative way – often to play games”, the report explains.

However, it warns that as students enter year 7, they are becoming “over-dependent on ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ for social validation”.

Aaron, 11, a year 7 pupil, told researchers: “If I got 150 likes, I’d be like that’s pretty cool – it means they like you.”

Pupils are even adapting their off-line behaviour to fit an online image, it adds, with children starting to see offline activities “through a ‘shareable lens’ based on what would look the best on social media”.

Children are also becoming “increasingly anxious” about their online image and ‘keeping up appearances’ as they get older. This phenomenon is made worse, the report adds, when pupils begin to follow celebrities.

The report picks out social media such as Instagram and Snapchat, which it says can “undermine children’s view of themselves by making them feel inferior to the people they follow”.

The research also warns of an increase in the social pressure that children feel to be constantly connected at the expense of other activities.

In fact, being connected is becoming the norm and being “offline” or uncontactable is increasingly considered to be socially damaging – so much so that researchers heard examples of people falling out if their friends felt they weren’t responsive enough online. By secondary school, the research warns, when quite often whole classes are on social media, “this pressure becomes impossible to ignore”.

The report states: “The transition from primary to secondary school saw a significant change in the way children used social media and brought with it new concerns. At this age, children were introduced to wider networks of friends and started to follow more celebrities and people they did not know in their offline lives.

“This meant they were more aware of their own identity, started comparing themselves to a broader group of people and worried about whether they fitted in. This introduced an additional layer of worries, relating to what people would think of them, what they looked like, and who they should be.”

Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said that many children are starting in year 7 “ill-equipped to cope with the sudden demands of social media as their world expands”.

She also said that social media companies are not doing enough to stop under-13s using platforms.
The report suggests that while parents and schools are successfully teaching children about online safety, children are less aware of how to protect themselves from other online situations that could affect their mood and emotions.

As such, it calls on schools and parents to help prepare children for this change towards the end of primary school.

It suggests compulsory digital literacy and online resilience lessons for year 6 and 7s, “so that they learn about the emotional side of social media and not just messages about safety”.

Ms Longfield said: “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. 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.

“I want to see children living healthy digital lives. That means parents engaging more 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.”


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