The truth about children and social media

A few weeks ago, a report on the impact of social media on British children’s mental health caught my eye. In a survey of 1,500 young people across the UK, the Royal Society for Public Health explored how platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook stoked anxiety, depression and poor sleep in children.

The survey grabbed my attention because, over the past few months, I’ve been talking to schoolchildren and young teens about their digital lives in order to better understand what it means to be born into an online world.

Young people are tech insiders, but in a very different sense from those I am used to interviewing. They are social-media critics, digital-content connoisseurs, mobile natives. They aren’t loyal to the big technology giants such as Facebook or Microsoft. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of YouTube’s catalogue and Snapchat shortcuts, and are the harshest critics and earliest adopters of new consumer apps.

My project is still ongoing: I have only just begun to disentangle what it means to live your life online. One of the major impacts, as the RSPH study found, is on mental health. The survey discovered that anxiety and depression in particular are exacerbated by heavy use of social media apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“Our lead recommendation was to introduce a pop-up ‘heavy usage’ warning. If young people used social media for two or more hours a day, there was a significant correlation [with an] increased rate of anxiety and depression,” Matt Keracher, the author of the report, told me. “If someone hits that limit, they’d be notified that they’ve been online for an extended period and they could either ignore or take it on board.”

Despite the downsides, I found from my interviews that there are reasons to be hopeful about the relationship between kids and the digital world. Social media is not simply a virtual connector as it was for my friends and me when Facebook first launched in 2004 — and as it remains for adults of my parents’ generation. Instead, the children I spent time with were heavy users of Snapchat and Instagram but not necessarily just to reach out to friends. For them, it is a way to find, crystallise and assert the most intimate parts of their identity — including sexuality, ancestry or body image.

The RSPH study concurred on this point — it found that all five of the platforms studied had a very positive impact on allowing kids to express themselves and form an identity. One gender-fluid 14-year-old told me that Instagram was the place that helped them to reach out to others who identified similarly, and to find a supportive community. Two girls diagnosed with anorexia as young teenagers used Instagram to document their recovery process and connect to other kids with similar problems, helping them step back from the brink.

On the flip side, many of the kids surveyed by the RSPH also rated Instagram as the platform with the most negative impact on body image. “A major issue that came out of the study was problems around body image. They’re viewing curated or heavily filtered images that are not necessarily proper representations of reality,” Keracher said. “We noticed a gender split, especially with Instagram — girls expressed a massively more negative perception of how it affected their body image than boys did.”

More broadly, the kids I spoke to were hyper-aware of a generational divide — a chasm that means their parents constantly complain that they are using too much technology, because they didn’t have the internet when they were children.

One in five young people, according to the RSPH, secretly turn on their phones under the covers in the night to check for updates. Many prefer to watch, comment and share the YouTube videos of strangers they identify with rather than speak to someone at school about a problem. Perhaps what adults need to understand is that for today’s children, online spaces are not a distraction but a place where they enact real-world relationships and experiment with who they are.

Madhumita Murgia is the FT’s European technology correspondent