'Do your job and take charge' - Psychologist warns parents to keep children off social media until age 14
As new research shows secondary school kids are 'ill-equipped' to deal with the stress of online apps, Arlene Harris asks students and parents how they cope
When Aimee Lyons got her first phone in sixth class, the Meath girl was only allowed to communicate with her friends through the messaging and calling app Viber. Now in first year in Scoil Muire, Trim, the 12-year-old has, after much pleading, finally got her foot on the lower rungs of the social media ladder.
"Now I'm in secondary school I'm allowed to have Snapchat," she says. "My parents wouldn't let me in the beginning but all of my friends had it and I felt people would make fun of me for not being on it, so I used to leave my phone at home rather than let people know I wasn't allowed."
This wasn't ideal as her parents had no means of contacting her, so eventually mum Vivienne and dad Andrew (who also have eight-year-old twins Isabel and Daire) relented and allowed their daughter to access the social media site, on which users communicate through photos and texts that automatically disappear after a few seconds.
"I really wasn't happy about her getting Snapchat as I don't like social media for children at all," says Vivienne. "I think sites like Facebook and Instagram should have an over-18 barrier as there is so much content which isn't suitable for children - not to mention the fact that the gathering of 'likes' and so-called 'friends' can be extremely stressful for kids."
She is not alone in her thinking as last week the Children's Commissioner in England called on teachers and parents to prepare their children for the social media transition which takes place once they start secondary school. In a detailed report, Anne Longfield said sites such as Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp are causing anxiety amongst children who are "ill-equipped" to cope with the "avalanche of pressure" they face online.
Sarah Nolan knows only too well the pressure of trying to get a handle on the teenage social media world.The 12-year-old from Dublin has a Facebook account which her mother monitors but despite the seemingly innocent content, the stress of achieving and maintaining popularity can be difficult to deal with. "When I was in primary I didn't really do much on my phone as I wasn't allowed to. But as soon as I started secondary (school), I got Instagram and Facebook," says Sarah, who was already using Snapchat and other messaging apps.
"These were great in the beginning and I loved putting up photos and seeing how many 'likes' I got, but sometimes things got a bit weird because if someone was in a mood, they wouldn't 'like' your post and this would make you feel bad. Also sometimes I forgot to 'like' photos and got a hard time about it from friends, so it can be stressful as there are always so many people posting that it can be hard to keep up."
Her mother Maire says she could tell her daughter was out of sorts but didn't realise initially that the problem lay with social media.
"I thought that by checking her page and posts all the time, I could ensure she was safe from dodgy things online, but never thought about the emotional side of things - young girls all worrying about who has the most 'friends' and 'likes' and if someone doesn't get a 'like' from someone else, they blow it all out of proportion. I had to explain to Sarah that it's all quite nonsensical and that most of the people who are 'friends' on social media would hardly salute each other in real life. I can see now that children need to be monitored really closely as their idea of reality goes out the window when they spend all day conversing through these apps. To be quite honest, I can't stand the whole thing and would much prefer if they sat talking to one person on the phone like we did - it was a whole lot less destructive."
But youngsters today rarely use the phone for actually calling each other. Cian de Monge (12) says although he has been using his mothers' old iPhone for the past year, he only uses it to message friends through Snapchat.
"I never talk on the phone but just use it for Snapchat about football and WhatsApp to message my parents," he says. "I'm not allowed to have Facebook so the only other thing I use it for is watching YouTube videos. But I'm not too bothered to be honest because the only people I have in my contact list are my actual friends or family, and if I don't know someone I wouldn't follow them or allow them to follow me."
Cian's mother, Emma, says both she and her husband have always been honest with their son about the dangers of social media and believes children should be prepared for the bigger role it plays once they hit the pre-teen years.
"Cian is only in sixth class but he has a lot of older friends so is well aware of what people are looking at online," she says. "We don't let him on Facebook and have explained the reasons why he is too young for it. I believe children should be eased into social media gently and this is why we only allow him to have a private Snapchat group at the moment."
Gemma Tuffy of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) explains that students learn about the benefits and pitfalls of social media in certain classes, but that cyberbullying and other online issues are increasingly cropping up across the entire second-level curriculum.
"While much social media activity goes on outside the confines of the classroom, the school's own policy on social media use can serve as a useful guide for young people. All schools are required to have robust behaviour policies in place which include social media.
"Typically, policies will require students to have their personal devices switched off while in school, unless a teacher has requested students to use a device as part of a lesson," she explains.
Dr David Carey, director of psychology at City Colleges and dean of the College of Progressive Education, says there is no need for children to use social media sites until they are in their teens.
"Children age 13 and under have no reason to access social media and it should not be permitted - no exceptions, no negotiation," he says. "Children of this age lack any sophistication needed to regulate their impulses or to appropriately interpret social media messages. The anxiety caused by craving attention on social media is not 'normal' anxiety. It's directly caused by the man-made 'need' to be on social media.
"So if you really want to help your child deal with anxiety related to social media, then keep them off it until age 14 - do your job and take charge. And if you still have concerns, consult a professional."