Are younger children being left out of social media safeguards?

March 30, 2022

Collage by Sophie with photo of girl by Hannah Xu at Unsplash and hourglass photo by Nile from Pixabay

Sophie-Jane Brennan explores the damaging consequences of social media on pre-teens’ body standards

There has been a lot of publicity about the impact of social media on teenagers’ mental health and wellbeing. In 2021, the Education Policy Institute found that there was a significant relationship between heavy social media use at 14 and worse self-esteem and higher psychological distress at age 17.

I think that people using social media at even younger ages are even more at risk of such problems. They are even less mature and less able to understand the impact that social media can have on them.

A report by Ofcom out today, March 30 2022, reports that children as young as five use social media. This is despite the fact that Instagram requires users to be at least 13 years old to use their services. However, it’s very easy to bypass this standard without actually verifying your age. Users just have to tick a box stating that they are over 13, whether that is true or not. Why are we not holding companies accountable for this?

It worries me to see people at such a young age have their own social media accounts on Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. My sister and her friends all post selfies and group shots in their school uniforms in front of their houses. This is personal information which can end up in the wrong hands, especially as these accounts can be visible to anyone. This puts young people at high risk of sexual exploitation and grooming.

When I was 12, I got obsessed with the hourglass figure, it just wasn’t achievable as I’d barely started puberty

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found that victims of childhood sexual exploitation are at higher risk of having the following problems:

  • mental health: low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm and suicide attempts
  • physical health: sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies
  • behavioural: age-inappropriate sexual activity, alcohol and drug misuse and lack of trust in others

What we see on social media are snippets of people’s lives. Kids as young as 10-11 don’t always understand that their favourite influencer’s posts are carefully selected and don’t necessarily reflect real life. They can develop an impression that others’ lives are better than their own and it can start to eat away at their confidence.

The impossibly perfect body standards shown in edited images online can seriously affect your self-esteem. At the moment the ideal body standard presented on social media is the hourglass figure. How is this achievable for most pre-teen girls who have barely started puberty? More to the point, why are they being subjected to something that is not even real, with most images being doctored in Photoshop or models having had plastic surgery?

I know a lot of young girls who hold themselves to these expectations on social media and start to exercise excessively in order to fit this unrealistic standard.

When I was 12, I got obsessed with the hourglass figure. I would watch videos that claimed that I would gain these curves after doing their workouts. After a year of following these videos religiously, I soon realised that it would never have worked as I wasn’t fully developed.

Pre-teens believe that what they see online is how they should look or live their lives in order to be popular

I’ve seen friends of my sister, between 11-13, who have started to become self-conscious about their skin, bodies and general appearance. They are also unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives, seeing their favourite influencers always sunning themselves on a beach, smiling, cocktail in hand.

However, these pre-teens believe that what they see online is how they should look or live their lives in order to be popular, pretty or fit in with others. In reality, there’s so much more to life than social media ‘likes’ and ‘follows’. Our worth isn’t based solely on our appearance, but also our interests, passions and connections with others in the real world.

You can find out more from the NSPCC about protecting children from online abuse here.

If you feel like your social media use is affecting your wellbeing, there are things you can do to tackle it. Young Minds have developed a guide for young people which can help you have a more positive time online. Some of their suggestions include limiting your screen time, deleting apps or unfollowing accounts that upset you.

Sophie-Jane is studying Creative Media Production at Barnet Southgate College. She is interested in exercise and playing netball and hockey.

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