Childhood Anxiety and Social Media
“For young people, social media is not an add-on nor an extracurricular activity. Social media is like eating, bathing, talking. It is intertwined in everything they do. It is a part of their identity.” – Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D
We all remember the social turmoil of our childhood’s, don’t we? The drama of ‘best friends’, picking sports teams and having the coolest clothes on ‘non-uniform’ day. If you were born any time before the millennium, you will probably remember these things being at the top of your worry lists, the primary sources of any anxiety you may have had as a child. However, the last two decades have seen the rise of social media, a construct we both love and hate. There are no strict limits to social media access, meaning that the children and teens of today have grown up in a world in which social media has always existed.
Anyone over the age of 20 will likely remember a time where social media, nay, the internet didn’t yet exist in a mainstream way. The only references we had for how well we were living our lives came from within our physical social bubble in the form of tangible human interaction. Children today now get their points of reference from a global platform with no emotional accountability and very little genuine humanity. This construct we call social media is replacing a few, limited meaningful relationships, with tidal waves of vapid and meaningless ones. Is it any wonder that childhood anxiety rates have gone through the roof?
How Does Social Media Impact Children and Teens?
“Spending too much time online can lead to social isolation and sleep deprivation, and puts children at greater risk of cyberbullying and exposure to content that may harm their mental and physical health.” – Johnathan Glazzard, Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Health in Schools
According to research taken out by the Education Policy Institute, the following facts are true:
- In the UK, around 35% of 15 year olds use the internet for at least 6 hours a day. This categorises them as extreme internet users.
- Around one third of people alive in the UK were introduced to the internet before the age of 6.
- Nearly 95% of teens use social media before, during and after school.
The fact is, social media is no longer an ‘added extra’, something that we opt in to. Every business and social construct is now entangled with these platforms. It is becoming increasingly difficult to disconnect with them, as they are now one of our primary avenues of communication, expression and references to our own self-worth.
We are going to take a closer look at some of the personal side effects of regular social media engagement. I can almost guarantee that you, as adults, will recognise at least one of these effects as having taken some kind of hold on you. Think about how tough these things are to deal with as a grown up. Then consider how you would go about dealing with the anxiety induced by social media if you were a child who’s thinking was not yet sophisticated enough to combat it, and who knew nothing other than the social media age.
It is human nature to compare yourself to others. When you walk into a room full of strangers, you naturally try to work out where you fit in the social hierarchy. You see this in every classroom and playground as well; it is a little easier to recognise in groups of children. The thing is, in a room full of actual people you have access to everyone’s good sides and bad sides. It is easy to see nuance in people, to get a sense of their overall selves. Social media does not offer this roundedness. We only tend to post the best snapshots of our lives on the internet. These supposedly perfect influencers are people as well, and will have their own faults and dark sides, but this is not what we see. We are tricked into believing that their lives are perfect and that this is what we should be striving for. Even as an adult, it is hard to remind yourself that this is the case. Young children do not have the cognitive facility for this kind of thinking, they believe that every inch of their lives should be Insta-perfect! But we know this is not real life, and so anxiety is fuelled.
Unbalanced World View
As a result of the comparison issue, and the fact that we only ever see the shiny parts of peoples lives, our world view becomes warped. Seeing hoards of people living their ‘best life’ only feeds into this new myth that the majority of people live faultless existences. Social media can very quickly go from looking like a community that only wants to put out the positive (which is justified), to a community that appears to be gloating. For somebody in sensitive place, somebody posting a personal ‘win’ can easily amp up anxiety another notch, or tip an individual over the edge.
Bidding for Attention
Many children attribute their popularity to the number of ‘Likes’, ‘Shares’, ‘Retweets’ and ‘Followers’ they have. In a world where YouTubers are celebrities, it is not too much of a leap to think that becoming ‘social media famous’ is entirely do-able. This point scoring, this supposed ‘fame’ our children are going for, is not real. It is empty. Yet, this constant competition has them trapped. Do they have enough ‘likes’? It is a worthless commodity that should not be an issue. It certainly isn’t worth the anxiety and low self-esteem it causes.
Sensory Shut Down
This is perhaps the biggest issue. So many of us, adults and children included, have started to replace significant chunks of our human interaction time with digital interaction. We are spending more and more time engaged with a synthetic and emotionally rudimentary world, rather than with the beautiful, nuanced, tangible one that we are physically standing in. This lack of human interaction in children is extremely worrying, as it is perhaps the most integral element of healthy social and behavioural development. When children do not get enough of this at such a formative stage in their life, their self-perception and ability to relate to other humans in real life becomes stunted. Once this behaviour is learnt (or, indeed, not learnt) it is extremely hard to remedy.
What Can We Do to Combat the Effects of Social Media in Schools?
The above effects of social media on children are only the tip of the iceberg. On top of that issue there is cyber bullying, trolls, the accidental sharing of private information, sites that harbour inappropriate or even dangerous content and grooming. So, how on earth to we combat this problem in our schools? Here’s how we start…
Openness and Honesty
This is the most important. Information. Internet safety and issue around social media need to be a consistent part of the conversation in your classroom. Yes, you need to strike a balance; be honest about the dangers without scaring the life out of your kids. But honesty is the key. Deflection and cotton wool is no good here, because there can’t be an adult monitoring each child all the time. So, you choose; have a weekly debate or conversation, implement a worry box, teach mini internet safety topics in your PHSE classes. Little and often is the key.
No Social Media Policy
This goes without saying. No social media in school. There are many that argue that social media should be banned, by law, for young children; there is a debate to be had there. However, in the meantime, the best way to regulate is to simply remove it where possible. This means that they have no choice but to actually interact with the real world and real people; hopefully this will instil a little balance.
Get the Parents Involved
You need to get parents on side. If you are a teacher, you will recognise the headache you get when a child has come back after a school break with bad habits picked up from home. Make communicating the dangers to parents a priority, because their support and dedication is crucial to keeping their children safe.
What Do You Think?
Do you have any policies or techniques in place to combat social media anxiety in your classroom? Do you think sanctions should be put in place to ban children from having access to social media? Is there any such thing a social media addiction? If so, have you seen it?
We want to hear what you have to sat on the subject. So, get in touch, share your views and ideas, and perhaps we can move a step closer to finding a solution to this digitally catalysed anxiety problem in our children.
By Chris Thomson