The internet and social media have revolutionised the way we learn, the way we live and work, the way we communicate and socialise with each other and, increasingly, the way we get help. But as well as transformational benefits there are also risks.
Research is only in its early stages; we are still very much learning about the full impact of IT and both its positive and negative effects. Early use of social media and the web, for example, has been linked to improved language skills, social development and creativity. As children grow older some studies also point to wellbeing benefits.
Concerns about internet use tend to focus on:
- Cyberbullying and more general bullying.
- Exposure to harmful online interactions with other users seeking to influence (including radicalise) and abuse children. A recent NASWUT (National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers) survey, for example, indicated that one in six primary school children had been noted viewing/sharing online sexual content.
- Preoccupations with social media and instant feedback to feel good about themselves or about their lives – often relying on quite limited and media-generated notions of success.
- Some signs that social media may have a negative impact on wellbeing and life satisfaction where use is intensive.
It can also introduce other risks, including:
- Exposure to illegal, distressing, inappropriate or traumatic content or harmful advice (e.g. websites or social networks promoting self-harm).
- Children sharing too much information or getting involved in ‘sexting’.
When do children start using social media?
Social networking is hugely popular and starts at a very young age. Surveys tell us that:
- A third of young people in the UK were six years old or younger when they first used the internet.
- Over half of 9 to 16-year-olds say they use a smart phone on a daily basis.
Most social media services should have systems in place to prevent anyone joining under 13 years of age. However, under 13-year-olds are still managing to set up accounts with estimates of:
- Over a third of 9 to 12-year-old children in 2013 having a Facebook profile.
- Three-quarters of primary school-leaving children (in 2016) using a social media site.
Protective factors: what schools can do
- Digital safeguarding and online safety should form a core part of a school’s safeguarding policies and procedures, linking to other key policies including those focused on mental health and wellbeing, bullying, e-safety and on preventing radicalisation.
- Digital safeguarding should be a whole-school issue with key messages repeated across the curriculum and whenever and wherever children are using information technology. There should also be clear procedures to help staff identify, intervene in, and address any incident where appropriate.
- Schools will need to limit (but not ‘over-block’) children’s exposure to risks emerging from the school IT systems and the internet. They must ensure there are appropriate filters and monitoring systems in place.
- A number of whole-school programmes and targeted small group work programmes are proven to help build children’s social and emotional skills, self-esteem and resilience against some of the potential negative effects associated with social media.
- Encourage pupils to explore the pros and cons of social media, following up with skills to keep themselves safe when using it. This could include getting older children to reflect on how interactions online differ from day-to-day exchanges and why people might say things online that they wouldn’t say face to face.
- A number of child-friendly PSHE resources and lesson plans are available to support primary school children’s digital safety.
- Working jointly with parents is essential to support children’s digital safety. A range of resources are available to help parents skill themselves up and support their children’s safety online.