Schools failing to prepare pupils for social-media 'cliff edge'

In a new report Children's commissioner, Anne Longfield, says that the transition to secondary leaves pupils ill-equipped for the demands of a social media

Adi Bloom

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Children are starting secondary school unprepared for the social-media “cliff edge” they are about to fall over, according to the children’s commissioner.

As a result, they become dependent on "likes" and comments for personal validation.

Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield argues that it should be compulsory for schools to teach digital literacy and online resilience to prepare pupils when they are in Years 6 and 7.

In a new report, published today, Ms Longfield examines the impact of social media on children aged 8-12.

Life in Likes shows that children aged 8-10 tend to use social media – often on their parents’ phones – to play games.

However, when they start secondary school, the way they use social media – and its effect on their wellbeing – hits a “cliff edge”. They become conscious of the need to keep up appearances online and peer approval becomes more important.

'It means they like you'

The report states: “Lessons around online safety learned at younger ages are insufficient to prepare children for the ‘cliff edge’ around the time of transition to secondary school.”

In particular, pupils begin to become dependent on accruing ‘likes’ and comments on social media. Eleven-year-old Harry told the children’s commissioner: “When you get 50 ‘likes’, it makes you feel good, ’cause you know people think you look good in that photo.”

And 11-year-old Aaron said: “If I got 150 ‘likes’, I’d be, like, that’s pretty cool. It means they like you.”

Once starting secondary school, pupils also become increasingly anxious about their online image and the need to keep up appearances on social media. Many compared themselves with celebrities, resulting in feelings of inferiority.

“You’re not very pretty compared to them,” 11-year-old Aimee said.

Other pupils found that social media made them feel inadequate in comparison with their peers. Eleven-year-old Harry said: “If you don’t have designer and expensive things, people will make fun of you.”

And Bridie, 11, added: “I saw a pretty girl and everything she has I want. My aim is to be like her.”

Social media risks

The report calls on the government to broaden digital-literacy education beyond simple safety messages. It suggests that lessons should develop pupils’ critical awareness and understanding of algorithms. This education should be particularly focused on the transition from primary to secondary school.

The report also suggests that schools “improve teachers’ knowledge about the impacts of social media on children’s wellbeing.”

Commenting on the report, which draws on in-depth interviews with 32 pupils across late primary and early secondary school, Ms Longfield said: “While social media clearly provides some great benefits to children, it is also exposing them to significant risks emotionally.

“I am worried that many children are starting secondary school ill-equipped to cope with the sudden demands of social media as their world explodes.”

A government spokesman said: "Making the UK the safest place in the world to be online is one of our top priorities – and the industry, schools, parents and the government all have a part to play.

"We expect social media firms to have robust processes in place around the use of their sites by children.

"As part of our Internet Safety Strategy, we'll consider whether companies need to do more to close down accounts belonging to under-age children and be more transparent in their messaging.

"We are also working closely with schools on online safety education, so that young people can reap the benefits of being online, while also understanding how to manage potential risks."

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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