Digital Footprints- understanding the long-term effects of social media on children’s privacy and security

5 mins

Is social media appropriate for children? On the one hand, detractors argue that social media has a damaging impact on children’s mental health, as well as raising serious privacy and security issues.


On the other hand, there are arguments that social media brings benefits to lots of children, and that, regardless of the risks, it is a fundamental part of our world in the modern era. Rather than trying to prevent children accessing social media altogether, proponents say they should be taught how to use social media safely from as early an age as possible.


Regardless of when parents feel it is appropriate for their child to start using social media, it is important that they take steps to ensure that they are doing so safely and securely. Various social media platforms have been built specifically for kids that take these concerns into mind.


Children’s social media: the dangers


Children’s mental health is deteriorating. Between 2018 and 2022, the number of children being admitted to the NHS for mental health disorders increased 84%, to 734,000.


Many lay the blame for this downturn in child mental health at the feet of social media companies. According to a US Surgeon General Advisory on the issue, 95% of 13-17 year olds use social media, with some using it “almost constantly”. A study cited by the advisory showed that spending more than three hours per day on social media doubled the risk of developing poor mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.


There are also serious concerns around broader safety issues when children use social media, especially privacy and security. Children are in danger of oversharing personal or sensitive information on social media, as well as falling victim to grooming or other forms of online abuse. For example, children who don’t understand the importance of online privacy might easily share information like contact details or even financial information publicly, or through competitions or games designed to fish for this kind of information. 


Children’s social media: the benefits


However, there are demonstrable benefits to allowing children to use social media, and downsides to preventing them. The US Surgeon General Advisory cites studies showing the beneficial impacts that social media can have by fostering a sense of connectedness, particularly for LGBTQ+ children or those from minority ethnic backgrounds.


While the increase in child mental health issues since 2019 is a serious concern, it is likely that the pandemic had a greater impact on this front than increasing use of social media. Exclusion from social media risks cutting children off from their friends, and cutting off a valuable source of fun and entertainment.


Social media, safely


It is possible to have it both ways. The benefits of social media can be made available to children in a way that minimises the risks and the negatives.


The NSPCC recommends various steps that parents who want to ensure their children are using social media safely can take, including reviewing the privacy and location settings on any app their child is using. Australian parenting site recommends clear communication between parents and children about their social media use, to ensure that children are using the platforms in as safe and secure a way as possible. 


Especially important is to teach children how to manage their information and security properly. Social media can be a valuable opportunity for parents to teach their children how to create and safely store strong passwords, as well as the general importance of maintaining good privacy practices online such as avoiding public wi-fi and refraining from sharing personal info online.


Various companies have tailor-made social media platforms with the needs of children in mind. Messenger Kids, from Meta, is a child-friendly version of Facebook’s messenger app available in some regions, that allows parents oversight over who their children befriend and talk to through the app. 


Then there are companies like SuperAwesome. SuperAwesome creates child-friendly solutions for use across the digital ecosystem, including parent verification and consent systems for digital platforms and guidelines to help influencers create content that is appropriate for children. 


In short, with the help of the right apps and platforms, parents can ensure that their children are using social media safely and securely, but it is important to engage with them along the way, and to view doing so as an opportunity to educate their children on responsible use of the internet.


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