Social media causing anxiety amongst children

Children are becoming overly reliant on ‘likes’ and comments on social media for validation, the children’s commissioner for England has warned.

Anne Longfield has published a report ‘Life in Likes’ which highlights that some children are becoming almost addicted to ‘likes’ as a form of social validation that makes them happy and that many are increasingly anxious about their online image and ‘keeping up appearances’.

“Many Year 7 children are finding social media hard to manage and becoming over-dependent on ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ for social validation. They also adapt their offline behaviour to fit an online image,” the report warns.

The report highlights how younger children use platforms which the social media companies say are not designed for them. Most social media sites have an official age limit of 13 years, yet some research has suggested that three quarters of 10-to-12 year olds have a social media account.

While children aged between eight and 10 use social media in a playful, creative way – often to play games – this changes significantly as children’s social circles expand in Year 7.

Children become increasingly anxious about their online image and ‘keeping up appearances’ as they get older. This can be made worse when they start to follow celebrities and others outside close family and friends and this group grows significantly upon starting secondary school. Their use of platforms like Instagram and Snapchat can also undermine children’s view of themselves by making them feel inferior to the people they follow.

Children also feel social pressure to be constantly connected at the expense of other activities – especially in secondary school where the whole class often have their own phone and are on social media.

In fact, Longfield warns that many children are approaching a ‘cliff edge’ as they transition from primary to secondary schools as social media becomes much more important in their lives but causes them greater anxiety.

The study reveals two sides to social media: one side which helps younger children to discover new things about the world around them, which boosts their moods and allows them to be creative, but another side among those approaching their teens which makes them worry about things they are not able to control.

The study highlights how social media is important for maintaining relationships, but this gets harder for children to manage at secondary school. Children are constantly contactable and connected, and being ‘offline’ is considered socially damaging with some children feeling social pressure as a result.  Some feared their friends would fall out with them if they weren’t responsive quickly enough.

Many children expressed discomfort about their parents posting pictures and videos of them on social media. Not only did they feel embarrassed by the way they looked, but were also anxious that they had no control once something was posted. Children mentioned that they didn’t feel their parents would take something down if they asked.

Parents and schools are successfully teaching children about online safety from predators and strangers, the report says. Yet, it also suggests children are less aware of how to protect themselves from other online situations that could affect their mood and emotions.

Staying safe online was a priority for many of the younger children and most children have strict rules about what they can and cannot share online, but there is less awareness about the emotional effects of social media. Many children seemed to lack techniques in how to deal with the impact of upsetting comments online.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “While social media clearly provides some great benefits to children, it is also exposing them to significant risks emotionally, particularly as they approach Year 7. I am worried that many children are starting secondary school ill-equipped to cope with the sudden demands of social media as their world expands. It is also clear that social media companies are still not doing enough to stop under-13s using their platforms in the first place.

“I want to see children living healthy digital lives. That means parents engaging more with what their children are doing online. Just because a child has learnt the safety messages at primary school does not mean they are prepared for all the challenges that social media will present. It means a bigger role for schools in making sure children are prepared for the emotional demands of social media. And it means social media companies need to take more responsibility.

“Failing to do so risks leaving a generation of children growing up chasing ‘likes’ to make them feel happy, worried about their appearance and image as a result of the unrealistic lifestyles they follow on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, and increasingly anxious about switching off due to the constant demands of social media.”

The report calls on schools and parents to prepare children for the change in use of social media towards the end of primary school. Ms Longfield also calls for compulsory digital literacy and online resilience lessons for Year 6 and 7s, so that they learn about the emotional side of social media and not just messages about safety.

‘Life in Likes’ available here.


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