Being exposed to the digital world 24/7 has had us experiencing life and observing the world from a completely different dimension. Without a doubt, our lives have been impacted immensely, making numerous tasks almost effortless for us. From communicating worldwide to building an entire business, taking on a digital lifestyle has benefitted us abundantly.

Nevertheless, no one can also doubt the harmful consequences that have been brought about by this digital lifestyle, particularly for the lives of children and young people. Numerous children and young people have had unwanted or inappropriate encounters online, leading to the deterioration of their mental health and wellbeing.

Social media has recognizably played a huge role in facilitating interactions and experiences that have resulted in these consequences.

What is social media?

Social media can be referred to as the entirety of networks, websites, and apps that allow people to engage with one another, create content and share information. Users are able to connect with their family and friends and interact in a wide range of ways - from writing messages on WhatsApp to recording video clips on Snapchat.

There’s no telling what the next big thing could be to take over the social media world as we are all still experiencing social media in its early days: Facebook was established in 2004, Instagram in 2010, and TikTok in 2017.

As the world has transitioned over to the digital world, it can only make sense that the popularity of social media has sky-rocketed over the past few years. A report from Ofcom this year illustrated that among children and adolescents in the UK aged 3-17 years, 50% used TikTok, 42% used Snapchat and 41% used Instagram. 33% of 5-7 year-olds and 60% of 8-11 year-olds have their own social media profile.

What makes social media so enticing?

A lot of us can raise our hands and admit that we’re a little addicted to our devices, namely our mobile phones - to the point where we can literally say that we pretty much live like this now. It’s difficult to function without our devices considering a huge chunk of our time is spent with our faces planted on our screens, whether it is something important or not. But why is that?

Endlessness and novelty. When we open our social media apps, there is always new and refreshed content for us to look at. There is no end point like we see in movies and books, so we see ourselves scrolling non-stop and never running out of content. Social media always offers a new post to read, an image to see, or a video to watch.

Feedback is another enticing characteristic. Social media allows people all over the world to give us feedback on our posts in the form of views, likes, and shares. This feedback is seen as a type of social currency that indicates social reinforcement and popularity.

It’s also no secret that social media platforms perform customizations through algorithms so that we can see tailored content and ads that align with our interests. Our data is collected so that our likes and dislikes are predicted, which is why we often see content that we are really interested in or can relate to well.

Social media also offers a chance for us to go viral. Anything uploaded onto social media could spread rapidly and lead to instant fame. Over the years, the digital world has witnessed a range of people that have gone viral due to the content that they’ve uploaded onto social media.

Of course, the idea of becoming famous appeals highly to children and young people, which is why they often participate in various online challenges, from the recent vandalisms of school bathrooms to the cinnamon challenge which gained popularity a few years ago.

And to top it all off, social media apps are free and accessible. Rather than customers paying for the app, their business model is based on advertising and time spent on the platform.

So as you can see, although this list isn’t exhaustive, there are a good handful of reasons we can get lured in and addicted to our devices, causing us to spend big chunks of our time endlessly scrolling down our social media feed.

Does that mean social media is bad for us?

It doesn’t have to be if we’re conscious of our actions and ensure we don’t lose sight of what’s more important in the real world. However, this isn’t always easy, especially for children and young people.

Numerous studies have demonstrated links between social media addiction and low quality of mental health and wellbeing, lower self-esteem, and poor sleep quality.

What makes this an even bigger issue is that it’s difficult for children and young people to stay away from their social media apps and devices. Not only due to the enticing characteristics mentioned above, but due to the fear of missing out.

What are they missing out on?

Fear of missing out, or FOMO, is the anxiety someone feels when they’re disconnected from something. They feel anxious because there’s something enjoyable going on amongst other people and they’re not there to participate with them - ultimately missing out on all the fun. This can also be seen in the digital world.

Social media and the content it displays are constantly changing. Every so often, we find ourselves being exposed to a new trend or challenge. This means that any time spent away from social media could potentially lead to missing out on something, whether it be globally or even just in a school environment. Even when they’re not using their social media, they’re thinking about it and wondering if they’ve missed anything exciting.

Are children with FOMO prone to bullying?

Cyberbullying is another prominent issue for children and young people on social media. It’s an act of using information and communication technology to harm another person.

It can be argued that cyberbullying can be committed easier than bullying in the real world. But why is that?

Cyberbullying can occur anywhere at any time if the individual has an internet connection (which is not a difficult situation to be in nowadays). The perpetrator can also remain anonymous online - they’re hidden behind a screen and create a fake social media profile to go forth with the bullying. What keeps the cyberbully going is that the perpetrator cannot see the reaction of the victim, so there’s no incentive to build any empathy. The victim could be crying endlessly, and this would be completely unknown unless they speak up.

Any top tips for self-care in the digital world?

The use of social media isn’t going to die down any time soon, so how do we prepare children and young people for what they might experience online?

Education is key!

Parents, carers, and even school teachers can inform their young children about the benefits of being online, but it’s important to emphasize the potential harms also, as well as know how each situation can be responded to. It’s important to teach children and young people about the rewarding nature of social media and its enticing features that are difficult to turn away from.

It may also be helpful to build a technology plan for them. This can include:

  • Identifying times of day when they won’t use social media;

  • Turning off social media notifications;

  • Refraining from checking social media during certain activities;

  • Prioritizing in-person interactions over virtual interactions;

  • Using social media for pre-set durations of time;

  • Only using social media when the resulting emotion is positive or healthy;

  • Not using social media to escape a negative mood state;

  • Going into airplane mode for parts of the day.

As you can see, you don’t need to be a technological whizz or even have a love for technology to do any of these things.

Why not just take away their devices or delete social media accounts?

That’s the dream, isn’t it?

But unfortunately, we can’t see this being a realistic plan. Children and young people have become so accustomed to using digital devices that taking them away from them could almost see them malfunctioning.

They’re surrounded by it, whether it be at home or at school. For this reason, it’s vital to work our way around it; by showing them how to experience a digital lifestyle in a healthy way. Children need to build their resilience online as they will most likely have a lot of negative experiences alongside the fun.