One of the children (I’ll call her Molly) in our extended family recently had her mobile phone confiscated for a month by her mum. This was due to Molly, aged thirteen, connecting with someone on Snapchat who appeared to be grooming her – and she hid the fact from her parents. Molly thought her mum’s response was unbelievably harsh – as did her friends – and the atmosphere at home was quite tense for a while. And then things quietened down. Her life wasn’t ruined and she somehow survived, using others’ phones when she needed to make a call or see something on TikTok – and doing other stuff.
During the month of enforced mobile abstinence, she focused more on her sport – and I saw more of her. When I asked her if she had really missed her phone she pulled a face and told me it had been awful, awful, awful – she had missed out on so much, particularly as she was without her phone for part of the summer holidays. But I don’t know if I believe her. She looks healthier – her skin is clearer and she seems more relaxed. Could just be the holidays – but as a silver-top brought up on a diet of outdoor play with the other kids down our road I worry when I see children so intently focused for hours on their smart phones. According to Ofcom, half the nine-year-olds in Britain have a mobile phone and most children own one by the time they start secondary school. More surprising, a fifth of three- to four-year-olds also have a phone (which might explain the small child I saw in a pushchair with his Gran in the supermarket queue. She had given him a board book to look at and I watched as he swiped its cover several times! He probably has a tablet clipped on to his playpen at home!).
It is also that focus on self – teenagers trying to turn quite mundane daily-grind stuff into Instagram and Snapchat content – that seems to lead to social comparisons that they can’t win – and leaves them feeling rubbish about themselves. There is no question that children’s mental and emotional health has been deteriorating over recent years – and not just since lockdown. It is probably the reason why Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both sent their children to schools in Silicone Valley that prohibited smartphone use. Research has now shown that sustained use of social media can overstimulate the reward centre in the brain, generating a response similar to addiction. Where children are on social media for sustained periods of time, the brain is affected, becoming less able to control impulses, emotions, and social interactions.
A recent British survey (UK Millennium Cohort Study) found that children who spend over four hours a day on social media are three times more likely not to read any books. It also found a link between greater social media use and being trolled, poor sleep, low self-esteem, poor body image and depression. Figures published in the US show 30% of teenaged girls contemplated suicide in 2021, an increase of 12% on the figures of 2011, with many more young people expressing feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Is it that different over here? I suspect not.
So, what’s to do? A response from two of the ACEd team with adolescent children suggested that, far from gradually withdrawing from the role of overseeing and protective parent in adolescence they recognised a need for enhanced connection and vigilance. And the ground rules of no phones in bedrooms after an agreed time – and never at the table during meals! – are kept in place even as children hit the teenage years. Alongside the boundaries relating to phone access is also a focus on those conversations about body image and separating the fake from the real – in the hope that they will reduce the hours spent posing and taking selfies to circulate among friends. And mostly I suspect it comes down to the quality of our capacity to relate to our children and find the time needed to have those conversations and try to understand the values they share with their peers.
Martha and Rachel
P.S. On September 18th, Radio 4 broadcast a thirty-minute programme ’24 hours in Snapchat’. Do listen to it – BBC 24 Hours in Snapchat. The children’s charity, NSPCC, claim that Snapchat is the leading social media platform when it comes to children and young people being groomed online. That claim is based on a survey of forty police forces across England and Wales. The figures show there were over 2000 known cases of sexual communication with children and young people over the past year and more than half of these were recorded on Snapchat. According to the figures grooming crimes on the app have more than doubled in the past six years.