Attempts to pull children ever deeper into the world of social media should concern us all
Facebook has launched a messenger app, Messenger Kids, in the US aimed at six to 11 year olds. The lower age limits for holding a regular Facebook account is 13 years old but there is little control over signing up and some users are already under age. Considering that the social media site was originally aimed at university students, it is concerning that it is increasingly being used by younger teens.
For some years, Facebook has been toying with the idea of a site for younger children and now it is available as an app for those children to message their friends. Most will access their accounts via a smartphone, and this means that children own and have all the responsibility of looking after the device and using it appropriately at quite a young age – something even older teenagers find difficult.
I wonder how many teenagers use Facebook for messaging, as it has become the social media platform of choice for older generations – their parents and grandparents. Most teenagers prefer Snapchat and Instagram to name just two alternatives. The cynic in me mused if this was the reason to launch an app for younger users – to hook them in.
For those concerned about online safety, Messenger Kids does not allow advertisements, and friend requests have to be verified by an adult. I expect they have strict privacy controls to allay fears about the site being a fertile ground for adults intent on communicating with children for sinister reasons. I do wonder quite what is done with the data captured through the app, and would hope that it is secure and anonymised. However, whilst safety is a concern, it is not my greatest worry.
I have my reservations about sites targeting young children, and earlier this month was interested to read that a former Facebook executive has expressed his guilt about working for the company. He no longer allows his children to use it, believing that the platform has “created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
In my opinion, social media encourages youngsters to view the world through rose-tinted spectacles. Everyone is having a fun time, according to the images posted, and life is not always like that. Even a wet weekend camping may appear to be the height of sophistication through the posts and comments. Children fortunate enough to enjoy exotic holidays or hold glamorous parties lead others to experience that feeling of missing out, and this is a really difficult emotion when you are not having such an exciting time.
Admittedly the stories I have heard are anecdotal but it is quite believable that this online generation struggle with communicating face to face. It is relatively easy to say something tricky when you can’t see the expression of the person you have just crushed with your honesty. I worry that we will lose the art of small talk and chat. It also becomes easy to send a series of emojis or virtual hugs when someone is upset and the ability to comfort someone truly in need is lost.
My husband made the mistake the other day of sending an emoji of someone crying with laughter when he meant to send one expressing sadness. If he can’t get it right at his age, it’s likely that young children will get it wrong too. What does it do for an individual’s mental health when their world is viewed through a screen? When everything is watched remotely, can we be sure that children are able to keep themselves mentally grounded? We should ensure that our young grow up in a world that protects them and keeps them safe, which includes making sure they are resilient enough to face the challenges of life.
At a time when we should be balancing screen time with other activity, it seems that we are creating another draw to spend more time online. Children should be playing games indoors and outside. They should be using their imagination to invent scenarios and role play. They should not be in lock-down unable to prise their eyes away from the screen. Part of childhood is learning to play board games such as chess and Ludo and kicking a football around the garden. Children who are glued to digital devices have been shown to have poor sleep patterns and delayed language skills. Is this what we choose for our children?
As adults and educators we can help by displaying healthy attitudes to the amount of time we spend online. It is so easy to pass the time just catching up with the latest happening amongst your group of friends and family. We have become voyeurs in other people’s lives.
In schools teachers do all we can to point out the potential pitfalls of using social media – this advice is in several formats from assemblies to personal social health lessons. Although I am a great believer in using digital technology, I do think excessive use of social media is giving us all a warped view of how everyone else is living their life. There are reports that the younger generations are revolting against posting online and are giving up their accounts. This is good news and I am generally against the introduction of a new platform that allows younger children to interact over the internet. It is hard enough for older children to avoid making hurtful public comments or posting inappropriate material. At my school, our advice is always if you do not like what you are reading or seeing and you are finding it upsetting then deactivate or delete your account.
As part of the Girls’ Day School Trust, we have taken part in the Positive Project which was developed by the Positive Group. The project uses technology as a force for good and aims to engage people to manage change and adapt to uncertainty. This enables participants to get into perspective disappointments and not sweat the small stuff too much. The programme uses an app and can also be used offline. Creating positive mood states has a huge impact on behaviours. We hope that, through this type of activity, pupils are able to balance what they witness through social media platforms with real life.
At Portsmouth High School it is not just teachers, but the whole school community that is engaged in raising awareness. We have cyber ambassadors who are extremely effective at giving out the right messages to younger students. They are trained by our local police commission ambassador scheme, and talk to younger year groups to educate them about online safety and screen time. As peers, they are effective at getting their message heard.
I hope that the creators of Messenger Kids have left it too late and the youngest generation are not interested in signing up. It is the duty of all adults, not just schools, to prevent our young from being drawn too far into the online world.
Jane Prescott, Headmistress, Portsmouth High School
This article first appeared in The Telegraph 8 January 2018