Social media firms must take more responsibility as children grow up 'chasing likes', commissioner warns

Social media firms must take more responsibility for helping children through the challenges of life online, as children are at risk of “growing up chasing likes”, the Children's Commissioner for England has warned.

Anne Longfield said social media is exposing children to "significant risks emotionally", with a particular “cliff edge” as they transition from junior into secondary school.

Saying she is worried many children transitioning into Year 7 are "ill-equipped" to be able to "cope with the sudden demands of social media", the commissioner called on schools and social media companies to do more to prepare them emotionally.

In a report published by the commissioner on Thursday, called Life in Likes, it states that children become increasingly anxious about their online image as they head into their teens.

The study, involving eight groups with 32 children aged eight to 12, found the most popular social media accounts are Snapchat, Instagram, Musical.ly and Whatsapp but revealed two sides to their use.

It found that while eight to 10-year-olds use social media to play games, be creative and discover new things about the world, the focus shifts onto social interactions and image as children begin secondary school.

This move is centred around a social pressure to be constantly contactable and connected, with children describing this as an important expectation of their friendships, and fallouts over not being responsive enough, the report said.

Some Year 7 children described how receiving notifications from across the social media platforms, especially if there were a number of them, was distracting, time consuming and stressful to manage.

Other children highlighted the negative effect of their parents’ social media use, complaining about “embarrassing” photographs being shared online without their permission, and exposure to inappropriate material through their mother or father’s own accounts.

"While social media clearly provides some great benefits to children, it is also exposing them to significant risks emotionally, particularly as they approach Year 7," the commissioner said.

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

With many social media platforms having an over-13 age limit, the commissioner said it is clear companies are "still not doing enough" to stop younger children using them.

Calling on schools and parents to prepare children for this change in social media use towards the end of primary school, the commissioner also warned how if action is not taken, a generation could grow up "chasing likes".

Ms Longfield also called for digital literacy and online resilience lessons for Year 6 and Year 7 students, so they learn about the emotional side of social media.

"I want to see children living healthy digital lives. That means parents engaging more with what their children are doing online," she added.

"Just because a child has learnt the safety messages at primary school does not mean they are prepared for all the challenges that social media will present.

"It means a bigger role for schools in making sure children are prepared for the emotional demands of social media. And it means social media companies need to take more responsibility.

"Failing to do so risks leaving a generation of children growing up chasing likes to make them feel happy, worried about their appearance and image as a result of the unrealistic lifestyles they follow on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, and increasingly anxious about switching off due to the constant demands of social media."