If education-based discussions in 2018 have been defined principally by one thing, it would be digital safeguarding. In January, children’s commissioner Anne Longfield published her report which recommended compulsory digital literacy lessons in primary schools. In February, Facebook’s London HQ held a meeting with representatives from some of Britain’s leading mental health experts and charities asking how social media providers can better support the needs of young and potentially vulnerable users. This month, the government launched a call for evidence ahead of another of its Green Papers addressing online safety and cyberbullying.
For most of us on the ground, it has taken surprisingly long for public conversation to reach critical mass. If my work in schools is anything to judge by issues such as social media addiction, sexting, pornography and cyberbullying have been the biggest concern of teachers and parents alike for at least five years. Lest we forget, a Green Paper is merely a document collated by government to "provoke further discussion", so we’re still some way away from reaching any satisfactory resolution.
Part of the problem is the relative newness of it all: technology develops faster than the psychological impact can be reliably measured. In 2016, a comprehensive, extensively researched and thoroughly peer-reviewed paper was published examining narcissism, self-esteem and their correlation with Facebook use in adolescents. When the research was first commissioned some years earlier, Facebook had been the most popular online platform for teens. Owing to the high quality of the research undertaken, by the time it was published most had moved on to Instagram and Snapchat, which are entirely different in their nature, content and pace.
Parents and educators are, then, always playing catch-up, which inevitably involves a little bit of guesswork and, in the case of some commentators who make a very lucrative living from it, scaremongery. Only time will tell whether social media’s naysayers will come to be seen through the prism of history as no different from those who proclaimed that the "wireless" would "rot children’s brains" or, conversely, whether the endless emails from social media providers tempting users to "see what they have missed" since they last visited will eventually be viewed with the same abject horror as cartoon characters advertising cigarettes.
Social media investigation
One thing we have finally begun to understand, however, is the role dopamine plays. Dopamine spikes play a fundamental role in all addictive behaviour and social media use is no exception. Evidence shows that notifications on our phones, however boring objectively, induce a Pavlovian response – a desire to jump on our phones and respond immediately, owing to a temporary increase in pleasure-giving dopamine levels in the brain.
In 2015, I took part in a local-media led investigation which found that more than half (52 per cent) of 12- to 14-year-olds surveyed felt "actively guilty" if they didn’t respond to text messages or notifications straight away. Dopamine response is undoubtedly playing a role in this phenomenon and whilst it has obvious implications for concentration in school, my main concerns are around sleep.
It’s not uncommon for young people to be part of WhatsApp groups containing 30 or so users. If each user feels a compulsion to reply to the last message and "actively guilty" if they do not, is it any wonder that, according to the parents I talk to, so many of them end up texting fervently under their duvets at 4am?
This week was National Sleep Week, with several mental health charities emphasising the importance of getting quality sleep in maintaining wellbeing. Everyone requires slightly different amounts of sleep, but the recommended number of hours for growing young people is nine. As well as impacting mood and concentration, lack of sleep has also been linked to immunity problems, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity.
Address the issue
A number of schools I visit have teamed up with parents to try and resolve issues around WhatsApp, Snapchat and the knock-on effect on sleep. Evidence shows that young people tend to avoid discussing cyberbullying and sexting with adults because they fear having their smartphones or laptops confiscated as punishment. Effective tech management, therefore, involves instigating rules in which everyone, regardless of the extent or nature of their social media use, must partake, so no one is being singled out. Some schools have a joint agreement with all parents in a year group that phones of all pupils are put in a dock out of reach to charge overnight at a set time, say 9pm. That way, none of the pupils suffer from the dreaded FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). This does, of course, involve the families concerned investing in some old-fashioned alarm clocks.
Initiatives like that described above represent, in my opinion, the way forward. None of us can wash our hands of this. Fans of social media point out that it has positive as well as negative outcomes for young people. It can be fun and a good way to break down barriers created by lack of confidence and socialise freely. Yet, as a fellow mental health campaigner wisely said to me: “the same is true of alcohol, but if your nine-year-old cracked open a can of beer at the dinner table you’d rightly be concerned”.
My (I sincerely hope unfounded) fear is that government is maneuvering to make rules around tech use in children and young people the problem of schools, adding it to the ever-spiraling to-do list of teachers. However, the issue cannot be addressed without tech providers and parents rolling up their sleeves taking active responsibility, too. This must be a joint effort if it is to have the desired impact.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here and preorder Natasha's book A Beginner's Guide to Being Mental: an A-Z here