A report published yesterday by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, warns that children are unprepared for the social media cliff edge as they start secondary school.  You can see a summary on the Commissioner’s website [here] and download the full report “Life in Likes” [here].

You can also hear a brief interview with me on Premier Radio from yesterday lunchtime if you follow this [link].

The report is concerning, there is no getting away from that.  Here are just a few of the quotes from children,

I saw a pretty girl and everything she has I want, my aim is to be like her.  I want her stuff, her white house and her MAC makeup.  Seeing here makes me feel cosy

Bridie, 11, Year 7

When you get 50 likes it makes you feel good cos you know people think you look good in that photo. I know that people like the look of me, it makes you feel that you are kind of popular cause you got a high amount of likes

Harry, 10, Year 6

On Musical.ly nice comments make me feel happy because it’s not only me who likes my videos but there’s other people who like my videos

Freya, 8, Year 4

When people say mean comments on Roblox it makes me sad and makes me want to quit the game

Freddie, 9, Year 4

They call me mean names and sometimes I don’t want to go on it for months and months

Luna, 8, Year 4

My mum would forget about everything if she didn’t have social media . . . without social media we wouldn’t know anything that is going on. Now everyone relies on social media they actually don’t know anything that was going on without it

Beth, 9, Year 5

Each of these comments has something concerning about it.  Not least the age at which children are accessing and playing / engaging with these platforms – but, I want to just highlight just a couple of things and then get in to the tips and tools.

Use is daily and habitual.

Firstly, there are apps that are more popular with children than others – and, in fact, more popular with children than they are with adults.  Mentioned in the quotes above are “Roblox” and “Musical.ly“.  A helpful chart in the report illustrates the level of activity on different platforms,

Everyone, it seems, is on WhatsApp.  There also doesn’t seem to be much “infrequent use”.

Low Expectations of Parents.

What is surprising about the report – especially as a parent of children in this age group (8-12s) – is just how little of the recommendations are addressed directly to parents.  The Government are thrown a raft of things they could or should be doing in relation to digital literacy and what they provide.  The section that addresses parents is in the context of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and their commitment to improving support to parents around internet safety.  Here is just one bullet point of the recommendations,

Effective guidance would :

Highlight the positives and negatives of social media use for children as young as 8 to improve parents knowledge and confidence.  This should include advice to parents about how they can talk to their child about their use of social media, understand the differences between appearance and reality, to combat peer pressure, and to understand techniques companies employ to encourage use.

“Life in Likes”, Children’s Commissioner Report into Social Media use among 8-12 year olds (2018)

What is assumed here is that parents are simply fellow travellers with their pre-teen children.  Despite the age restrictions on most social media apps being set at 13+ three out of ever four 10-12 year olds have their own social media accounts.  As the suggested advice to parents continues it is about encouraging, educating and informing parents – with the aim of building confidence.

We need to go much further than this, so – here are my three tips and five tools.

Tip 1 :: Be Counter Cultural.

If my children need to go on a trip with school or club I need to sign a consent form; If a school or club wants to use photos of my children they ask permission.  What is weird about where we are with social media is it is being assumed that, regardless of the guidelines or boundaries parents might set for their children, they will be on social media anyway.

If this was about obesity (and the physical health and wellbeing of children) rather than social media (and the emotional and mental welling of children) parents would be getting it in the neck for what they are putting in their kids packed lunches! Regularly in school newsletters parents are reminded by schools of what makes a healthy packed lunch.

Look.  Let me say it plainly.  Parents – WE are responsible for our children – their activity and their behaviour.  Not the Government, not the school, not the Children’s Commissioner fo England, not the Social Media companies, not the Youtube star they want to be like.  We are not on some benign kind of “matey” journey with our kids as our friends . . . we are their parents!  We love them, we guide them, and yes – we discipline them.  Part of this responsibility means we need to say “no.”

Can we be counter cultural and simply say “no” to our children when they clamour to be on Instagram “because all my friends are”?

In his chapter on boundaries, in his excellent book, “The Growth of Love” Keith White says this,

For some reason, our contemporary cultures have difficulty with the whole idea of saying “No” to children . . . whatever the reason, it creates a huge problem for children, who need to hear “No”, clearly, firmly and consistently spelt out.  Strange as it may seem, hearing “No” is a crucial basis of growth, identity and relationships.

“The Growth of Love”, Keith White, Page 83

When it comes to social media, this report seems to suggest an “oh, alright then” approach to children’s engagement – despite the concerns the report raises.  “They will be on social media, so lets try and minimise the damage”.

We have some great verses we can turn to in scripture that help us see – not just in relation to the online world – but in general, what our hearts, minds and values should cherish,

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things and the God of peace will be with you

Philippians 4:8

We are in a messed up world where the things to be praised, liked and thought lovely are airbrushed images that have taken hours to prepare and photos that do not reflect truth but a fake and false “reality”.  The pursuit of likes for photos, the need to be validated by the comments of others when we are made in the image of God . . . a masterpiece in his eyes, just as we are.

Parents, maybe we just need to have confidence in our “No.”

Tip 2 :: Model.

Children copy what they see.  This powerful (and disturbing) video from NAPCAN – a child protection organisation in Australia, highlights this in a stark and sobering manner :

I’ve written about it before many times – but, for children, the most influential role models in their lives are their parents.  In Youth For Christ’s research last year, one of the statements that stood our from their report on Generation Z was that young people wanted to make their families proud.  What do we model?  Are we addicted to our devices?  Can we turn them off and enjoy a family meal?  Do we leave them downstairs when we head off to bed?  Is it possible for us to brew our coffee and enjoy the sunrise out of the kitchen window before going online?  Do we miss the fun and amazing stuff our kids are doing because our head is in our phone?

Lets model what we want to see.

Tip 3 :: Learn.

There are some great places we can go (online obviously) to learn more, to be more equipped and have confidence that we are getting to grips with the digital world.  If you are a parent born before the early 90s your childhood was almost certainly “device free” in terms of the online world.  On the other hand, our children now are digital natives.  They have not known a world without social media.  Schools are making increasing use of technology to manage homework, engagement with the home, children’s behaviour at school, buying lunch in the canteen with the swipe of a finger.  This is the world.

Whether we are saying “No” or not to our 8-12 year olds, as they transition in to their teen years this is the world they (and we) inhabit.  So, get familiar with where you can be informed about everything from parental controls to the latest apps to the worrying trends and issues of concern – AND where great educational and fun content can be found online for your kids to enjoy.

Just a FEW places to recommend ::

www.ceop.police.uk (Twitter : @CEOPUK)

www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology/ (Twitter : @BBCTech)

www.techcrunch.com (Twitter : @techcrunch)

www.ccpas.co.uk (Twitter : @theCCPAS)

www.mashable.com (Twitter : @mashable)

www.thesafenetwork.org.uk (Twitter : @thesafenetwork)

www.bullying.co.uk (Twitter : @bullyinguk)

www.nspcc.org.uk (Twitter : @NSPCC)

Tool 1 :: THINK.  For older young people whilst they might see social media as essential for daily living, it is also the thing that they themselves site as having the most negative impact on how they feel about themselves.  Children are entering this world and encountering bullying and mean comments on platforms such as “Roblox” from people they don’t know other than via that platform.  This can be scary and bewildering.  We all know it is easy to fire off a “knee jerk” email or a stroppy tweet without thinking about it – just hit “send”.  WE could all do with more thinking before speaking.  Let’s encourage this in our children, not just in their face to face speaking – but as they engage with others online, where via email, WhatsApp or Vlog.  Is what is being shared :

T – True? H – Helpful? I – Inspiring? N – Necessary? K – Kind?

Tool 2 : Digital 5 A Day.

The Children’s Commissioner has produced a simple resource to encourage and support a healthy digital life.  It follows the pattern of the NHS Five a Day Plan, but with a digital twist.  IF you are setting boundaries around use and access – this would be a great tool to make use of in the home, but also could form the basis of a short themed course in a Church youth group.

Check it out [here].

Tool 3 : TEAM.

NSPCC and o2 have teamed up to produce resources and support for parents, they are running an email series you can sign up to [here] – with weekly actives and conversation starters to bring you closer to your child’s online world.

There is also a great space online that the NSPCC have created to help you be “Share Aware” – it is based on the simple acronym, TEAM.

T – Talk – Talk to your kids about social media!

E – Explore – Explore online together, show your kids stuff and vice versa – make it normal in your home to be online together rather than a separate and solitary activity.

A – Agree – Agree rules about what is ok and what is not.  This comes back to the “No”.  Be clear and consistent.

M – Manage – Manage family settings and controls.  There is a FREE app from NSPCC which you should have on your phone, it’s called “NetAware” and available for both Android and iOS devices.  Great advice on ALL apps, literally – LOADS of things you’ve never heard of – but will make sure you are in the loop with trends, features of the various apps and the latest news from NCPCCs digital team.  Check out the dedicated website [here].

Tool 4 : CPO Resources.

My friend over at CPO has produced some cracking booklets about the online world for Churches.  They are straightforward and helpful – full of practical tips and advice for everything from websites to social media.

Check out the Social Media booklet [here].

Tool 5 : Raising Children in a Digital Age.

A few years old now, but still an essential read is Bex Lewis’ book, “Raising Children in a Digital Age”.  Full of practical advice and well balanced – with a focus on helping children enjoy the best that the online world has to offer, while helping them to avoid the worst.

Check out the book from Bex [here].