At WGHS, we want students who use Social Media to be to as savvy, healthy and well-judging in the virtual world as they are in their real-world relationships.
As adults, whether parents or teachers, we are well aware that our children use phones, tablets and laptops as though they were born to them, which, compared to most adults, there were. This can leave us feeling as though we are constantly playing catch-up: at least those of us who haven’t already given up trying. Part of the point and the attraction of Social Media is that it’s ever changing and as such, evolves as soon as the parents cotton on to it. Facebook, for example, is now predominantly the chosen site of adults, with teenagers preferring the faster paced Snapchat or the privacy of more private chat through Instagram, Messenger or WhatsApp. Adults can end up feeling well and truly left behind, baffled and frequently at a loss as to how best support our children in their on-line lives, especially when we suspect it’s having a detrimental impact on our child’s wellbeing.
If you find yourself baffled by the array of Apps your child has on their phone, you are not alone. We have frequent conversations with parents whose knowledge of their children’s on-line life is either sketchy or non-existent. We also speak frequently to parents who describe their children’s secretive behaviour with their phones and the addictive power they seem to hold over them. Parents tell us that they hear their children’s phone alerts going through the night, knowing that the chat is continuing through the small hours and they are understandably concerned about the impact this is having on their child’s ability to cope in school the next day. Attempts to monitor phones are met with tantrums and claims of cruel and unusual punishment and, frequently, parents are left feeling powerless in the face of the obvious strength of their child’s feelings.
In school, we have clear rules about when phones can and cannot be used, and sometimes we will confiscate a young person’s phone for misuse; perhaps they’ve been using it between lessons or have been caught with it out under the desk. When this happens, the response of the child seems, sometimes, completely disproportionate. Tears, terror, pleading, bargaining, we’ve seen all of these, along with the more normal wry it’s-a-fair-cop response we would expect. When a child’s response is extreme, it immediately rings alarm bells: why the panic? In these cases, discussion and investigation are needed and sometimes what we find justifies the child’s panic. Sometimes, though, it’s just the idea of being disconnected that can send a young person into a flat spin. It’s what’s referred to as FOMO: Fear of Missing Out.
Part of adolescence is to do with risk-taking and experimentation and it’s inevitable that young people will use Social Media to push boundaries and explore. Most children come through the experience relatively unscathed. Social Media Apps offer a whole world of creative and entertaining communication possibilities that most adults could never even dream of. The impact and consequences of poor choices in this sort of communication, however, can be serious. Some of our students know to their cost that a quick bad decision on Snapchat, for example, can have far-reaching consequences, which affect their friendships, their position in school and their relationship with their parents. Although we don’t yet really know what the impact of being part of the internet generation will have on our children’s mental health in the long term, we are definitely seeing issues associated with on-line life and low self-esteem emerging. There is no escaping the fact that social media can make a young person thoroughly miserable: too fat, too poor, too…ordinary. As critical adults, we have the capacity to look at the on-line profile of others and see the underlying trend towards idealisation and spin. Children don’t have that capacity, and the impact it can have on their sense of self, their feelings of security and worth, can be profound. They strive for more followers, more likes, more comments, more streaks, more attention….The ability to compare themselves to others and find themselves wanting is endless.
So, what do we do? Recognising the signs of addiction in your child is important, because parents can combat it. During a recent training session in school with social media experts Digital Awareness UK, our year 8 students told us that typically, on a weekday, they will spend two or three hours on social media. At the weekend, they will spend more than five hours per day online. Some children will be spending far in excess of that. This gives us an awareness of just how powerful the attraction of social media is for young people. For them, it’s not a problem: it’s simply the way life is. There is, however, increasing concern from experts about the impact of exposure to so much unobserved, unregulated information on the developing brain and it’s something we need to take seriously.
If you are concerned that your child is spending too much time on-line, the advice from experts is to take action to limit it. Many parents take a firm, sensible approach, having a family cut-off time for social media use, modelling good behaviour themselves and insisting that phones are charged overnight downstairs, in spite of their children’s protestations that they are missing something vital to their social standing in the Year Group. Having phones in bedrooms at night is a particular problem and we often see evidence of conversations that have been taking place in the small hours. When we advise young people to leave their phone downstairs during the night the most common response is “But it has an alarm which wakes me up in the morning.” When we suggest an alarm clock, we are met with bafflement. A what?
As young people get older, the impact of poor decisions made on social media can be far-reaching. Most of us will have at least anecdotal evidence of someone who has failed to meet a short-list for a job, or been disciplined – even sacked - at work. Some of us may have experience as employers of disregarding a candidate following a Google search. A negative digital footprint can be damaging. Lower down the school, our focus in PSHE lessons is on kindness and safety, but as our students become more mature, we use PSHE lessons to encourage positive social media use with thoughts of future employment in mind. Creating a healthy online “brand” can be an extremely effective way of impressing future employers, allowing a young person to showcase their talents and abilities, their humour, energy and friendships.
At the end of this article, you will find some writing by of two of our Year 12 students, Erin Kelly and Amelia Hunter-Wilkinson. They have added their thoughts about this subject from an older teenage perspective. I’m sure you’ll find it interesting reading, especially their reflections on addiction.
If you have concerns about your child’s use of social media, there is plenty of advice available to you. The pastoral team at school is here to listen to concerns and offer support, and there is help on hand from charities such as the NSPCC, Childline and Barnados. Below are links to a variety of sites which will provide advice and guidance to parents who are concerned or simply want further information.
Think u Know: Having a Conversation with your Child
Think u Know: How to Guides
Childline: Online & Mobile Safety
Kidscape: Internet Safety & Addressing Online Risk
Barnados: Keep Children Safe