We’re probably all ‘guilty’ of spending too much time online and not enough in the real world, but at least for adults we are equipped with the life experience to make smart decisions. Teenagers and kids? Less so. Their brains are still developing, and they’re learning as they go.
Sadly, the more that time goes on, the more negative news stories appear of how children’s lives and mental health are affected negatively by activity on their smart phones and on social media.
What are the risks?
TikTok is a big hit amongst young people, but in recent years there have been numerous reports of deaths caused by ‘TikTok challenges’- which include choking yourself until you pass out, or overdosing on antihistamines. 13 year old Jacob Stevens died on 12th April while attempting the ‘Benadryl challenge’, and sadly he isn’t the only one. 9 children died in separate incidents attempting the ‘Blackout challenge’, in which kids attempt to choke themselves to feel a high.
Another major concern is children talking to strangers online. An Office for National Statistics crime survey in 2021 found that 1 in 6 kids aged 10-15 had talked to strangers online, and even more worryingly, 5% of children had arranged to meet up in real life with a stranger they had met online.
When the world of gaming takes over
For many kids, their gaming lives become their whole lives. ‘It can be a form of escapism and it has become addictive,’ says Debbie Pattison, Clinical Lead at Spurgeons charity. ‘If kids are not very happy in the real world they escape to the online gaming world- they can be anything they want to be, and disappear into it. It can be a better place than the real world. It can mean that they stop socialising, so they’re not going out, they’re not seeing their friends. I think the danger is that they’re not getting the valuable sociable interaction and fresh air.’
Less serious but also damaging are games which kids can download without their parents being alerted or aware. Many seemingly harmless games offer kids the chance to use weapons, shoot zombies or mutilate their enemies. The age recommendation for such games can be as young as 3 years old.
The drawbacks of social media
The images of perfect bodies that have affected women for decades are now everywhere young people look on social media. ‘Social media portrays the perfect body and the perfect image,’ says Debbie. ‘It comes up a lot. Children can feel inferior. There’s a lot of cyberbullying. My advice to parents is to keep an eye on their social media and what they’re looking at.’
It’s also worth educating children on how what they post online can last a lifetime. ‘Whatever they do on social media- they leave a blueprint,’ says Debbie. ‘That can never really be retracted. It can taint them for the rest of their lives.’
Tips to protect your child’s health from negative online activity
So, with all of these issues lurking within your child’s phone, how can you keep them safe? Thankfully, there are many ways you can help protect them:
- Education. While it can seem counterintuitive to inform children of the dangers of the world, knowledge is better than ignorance. Explain to children why they must not talk to strangers online (just as they shouldn’t talk to strangers on the street). Also, explain how they must be careful what they post online as it may affect them in future, and how they must only visit appropriate websites.
- Have conversations around body image and the ‘reality’ of social media. It can help young people- particularly girls- to recognise that what they see online doesn’t reflect reality. With Photoshop, filters on camera phones and image altering apps, you can never be sure that an image is real. Altering images is par for the course for many ‘influencers’, and the snapshots of their life that they share are not even 1% of the reality. Also, discussing what children love and appreciate about the people around them can help- they’ll usually realise it’s nothing to do with looks and everything to do with what those people bring to their lives.
- Install parental controls and restrict access. Apps, such as Family Link, can help parents keep on top of what their child can get up to on their phones. Also, check with your internet provider about blocking inappropriate content- many companies can block pornographic material, for example.
- Check the age guidelines for apps. For example, TikTok is not suitable for those under 13 (although even at age 13 there is a lot of risky content).
- Check phones regularly. This is a tricky one because kids can get angry for feeling like their privacy is being invaded. However, checking messages for signs of bullying or inappropriate material can actually help your child in the long run.