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  • Writer's pictureTom Church

How to reduce my child’s time on social media? (Staying safe online series, Part 1).


I don’t know about you, but since the Covid lockdowns, the UK seems to be a far more miserable place than it was before. Of course, there is no shortage of bad news, from war, inflation, political incompetence (both incumbent and opposition), and constant streams of civilisation-ending climate disasters we seem to be on the cusp of. Real life is, indeed, rather horrid at the moment.


In this article, I will lay out my case for why social media is making us all unhappier, how it does so, and often with tragic results. I’ll offer up evidence from experiments, and how we in the UK are trying to adapt to this new influence on our lives. And finally, I will include how you, as a parent, guardian, or concerned adult, can take steps to reduce a child’s exposure to social media.


Oddly, I am writing this from the point of view as a marketeer. My job could be dependent on getting as many eyeballs on screens for as long as possible, and to penalise anyone for a single blink! But, I believe that marketing can be more noble than this - and I am human first, marketeer perhaps 4th or 5th, and I believe we all have responsibilities to speak out when we find something that concerns us.


And the modern news cycle should concern us all.





I’m a middle-aged man, I think, though I still try my best to behave as though I am 25, and I often find the doom-laden media depressing - and I’m a proud world-weary cynic who finds joy in the realisation that every silver lining has a cloud, that every rose a thorn, and that every affection my dog displays toward me is part of its biological algorithm to convince me to feed the miserable chancer some more treats!


Joking aside, a boy of my age has had time and experience enough to understand the way the media works for the most part: bad news sells! It gets clicks. But if I was a teenager, or a student still, would I have developed the resilience of cynicism that you need to be able to function in today’s doom-scrolling society?


I don’t think I would.


UK adults economic inactivity due to mental ill health - a social media connection?


Recently, a report from the Resolution Foundation claimed that 1 in 20 UK adults between 18 and 24 years old are economically inactive due to ill health - and of that a third of these experienced depression or other mental disorders. This age range is a life changing period for human beings, when they build their networks, start on relationships that may result in marriage and two years of bliss, find their feet in the workplace and what is expected of them - so a wobble here can potentially put a youngster on the wrong track for life. It should be a time when you can afford to make mistakes - and to learn from them and hopefully, one day, even laugh at them!


Furthermore, many in this age group would have been older teens in the pandemic. In this period, social media use grew massively: not least we saw the rise of Tick Tok, rocketing up around March 2020, with other platforms rolling out the short video format to keep up.

And one startling figure I have seen repeated, is that the average user scrolls through their Facebook social media account to a distance equal to the height of the Eiffel Tower each day! That’s a staggering 300 metres, or, if my iPhone SE display screen is anything to go by, with a height display of 10cm, then 1 swipe is roughly 1.5 posts. That means I would need to brush my thumb across the screen around 2000 times a day! Carpel Tunnel Syndrome is now a 21st century lifestyle disease!


Aside from the fact that my thumb has better things to touch than my iPhone 2000 times a day, this is a clear indication that social media is eating up a huge chunk of that most precious and sacred of currencies: our time.


But has it led to this new rise in mental disorders? Are we in a state of social media depression?


The Facebook experience:


An intriguing study, carried out in 2021 by Luca Braghieri, titled ‘Social Media and Mental Health’ (the link to the paper is at the bottom of this article), very cleverly used a ‘natural experiment’ to determine evidence for Facebook’s deployment being linked to rising mental health issues.

When Facebook first rolled out, it did so on a campus-by-campus basis across the US. Created for use by Harvard students in 2004, it was only publicly available in late 2006. Between that period, it was introduced in one campus after another, totalling 775 colleges in the United States. Notably, the researchers examined the National College Health Assessment data at the time of Facebook’s expansion, which contained 430,000 responses covering physical and mental health across the student cohort.


The research concluded that the introduction of Facebook in US colleges led to a worsening of mental health and to an increase in take-up of depression related services. These effects were more pronounced amongst individuals who were predicted to be more susceptible to mental illness, such as those people who saw themselves as outsiders. This also led to a noticeable deterioration in student academic achievement.


The mechanism for this was mainly attributed to giving people the enhanced ability to ‘make unfavourable social comparisons,’ to one another.


How many of us have seen pictures of those we know who are showing off a new house, a holiday, a partner with exciting physical attributes, or an even better looking dog? I know I have.


And how does it make you feel?


How would it make you feel when you 18? Or 14?


The Molly Russell case:


The awful story of 14 year old schoolgirl Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017, should be a kick-in-the-nethers wake up call for every parent, aunt, uncle, and responsible adult. After her death her father, Ian, examined Molly’s email, trying to find a reason for his daughter’s actions. Just two weeks before her fateful decision, she had received an email from Pinterest headed: “Depression Pins you may like.”


It contained the image of a bloodied razor.


And Instagram too was feeding her content: for the previous six months before her death, she had interacted with over 2000 posts related to suicide, self-harm, and depression.

The echo-chamber algorithms were feeding her content she had engaged with, until it had become a flood of self-harm imagery and posts. Continuing for the previous six months, could any of us claim to have the resilience to be immune from such a torrent?


And at such an impressionable age?


Ofcom, the British media regulator, reported in 2022 that almost two-thirds of British children aged 3(!)-15 use social media and that one-third of those between 8-15 have seen upsetting content over the previous 12 months.


So, what can be done?


The UK’s Online Safety Bill 2023.


Coming into force on the 26th October 2023, the bill is aimed at tackling harmful content: child sexual abuse, controlling behaviour, terrorism, suicide. One section of it, 187, is known as the ‘cyber flashing section,’ and is aimed at preventing anyone sharing pictures or films of genitals with the aim of obtaining sexual gratification or humiliating another person. In our era of permanent surveillance from our peers, this is particularly important for teenagers. Companies must also prevent children from accessing content that is harmful or age-inappropriate, such as: pornography, serious violence, bullying, self-harm, eating disorders.


And the penalties for breaking this are suitably severe: with fines of up to £18 million, or 10% of the company’s annual global turnover, (whichever is greater). Criminal action against companies and/or senior managers who fail to comply with requirements or fail to follow requests from Ofcom, and then there are the business disruption measures, including preventing companies from being accessed or generating income in the UK.


So whilst this is a massive step in the right direction, and can be said to put the UK in a world leader in this area of legislation, (the Global Standards for Digital Intelligence puts the UK in top position for the best country for online safety with our children!), I think we could do a bit more.


We are all the heroes of our own story: the dangers of echoes.


I mentioned earlier, in the case the tragic case of Molly, how the echo-chamber of social media had identified her interests and interactions and had fed her more of the same content.

Living in an echo-chamber is dangerous for all of us - you live in a world without criticism, where your perspective is never challenged, where your beliefs are reinforced and your sense of outrage at those who disagree with you grows unchecked. After all, even Hitler and Stalin were heroes of their own stories - justifying their actions by underlings who would only offer them favourable versions of the truth.


So, how do we break this echo-chamber? What stone do we first cast that will break the wall and shatter the reflection?


I believe it would be possible, and quite easily so, for social media companies to present to their users the opposite of their echo-chamber. It is, after all, a machine learning algorithm. They know what we like, and therefore they know what we don’t like! I believe that serving users with the opposite of their echo-chambers would help to make us all question the social media mire we too often get stuck into. It would force us to recognise that others hold different opinions . . . and do you know, it might actually work!


I hope I’ve persuaded you that my arguments are at least data and research driven, and to that end the New York Times conducted a series of meetings with people of different political leanings back in 2019. Face to face, airing disagreements, it enabled people to see the other point of view and succeeded in taking the venom out of the debates, where participants were able to find common ground with one another. Sadly, in the online world of our own echo-chambers, this is rarely the case.


So, we have seen and demonstrated how dangerous social media can be to our mental health, and explained why that is the case, but how can you reduce your child’s time spent on their mobiles, doom-scrolling?


Below, there are 10 ways to help reduce your child’s use of social media:


1. Open Dialogue

Start with an open conversation about your concerns with social media usage and its potential impact on mental health, sleep, and real-life relationships. Encourage them to share their experiences and views.


2. Set Clear Limits

Establish clear guidelines for social media use, including specific times or durations they're allowed to use it. Be specific about when and where social media can be accessed, such as no devices at the dinner table or during family time.


3. Use Parental Controls

Leverage parental control tools and apps to set time limits on social media use. Many devices and platforms offer built-in features for monitoring and limiting screen time.


4. Lead by Example

Model the behavior you want to see by limiting your own social media and screen time. Children are more likely to follow guidelines if they see their parents adhering to similar rules.


5. Encourage Offline Activities

Promote engaging in offline activities that your child enjoys, such as sports, reading, or spending time with friends and family. The more fulfilled they are outside of social media, the less they may feel the need to spend time on it.


6. Educate About Social Media

Discuss the curated nature of social media and the importance of not comparing oneself to the often unrealistic portrayals seen online. Teaching critical thinking regarding social media content can diminish its negative impact.


7. Foster Open Communication

Keep communication lines open and check in regularly about their social media interactions without being intrusive. Knowing they can talk to you about their online experiences without judgment encourages transparency.


8. Highlight Privacy Concerns

Teach them about privacy settings and the importance of safeguarding personal information online. Understanding the permanence and potential reach of what's shared on social media can lead to more mindful usage.


9. Create Tech-Free Zones

Designate areas in your home as tech-free zones, encouraging more face-to-face interactions and reducing the automatic reflex to check social media constantly.


10. Monitor for Signs of Distress

Be vigilant for any changes in behaviour that may indicate negative effects from social media use, such as withdrawal, anxiety, or changes in sleep patterns, and be prepared to intervene if necessary.


Implementing these strategies requires patience and consistency, and the approach can be adjusted based on your child's age, maturity level, and specific family dynamics. It's also important to periodically review and adjust the rules as your child grows and their relationship with social media evolves.


Social media: What happens next?


The social media industry is almost certainly here to stay now. As AI and Machine Learning get built into the various platforms, I would venture to suggest that they might become more addictive than ever before. It will become more personalised, and the ability of bad actors to trick us, via the use of deep fakes, will grow. (A 2019 series on Netflix called ‘Next’ had an AI trick a child into taking a gun from his mother’s bedroom - with humans using AI deep fakes, this is already possible).


But I do also foresee something else. In the study I documented above, with Facebook being rolled out across colleges and the associated drop in mental health, there was also a marked reduction in academic achievement. A Danish study has also found that that those people with depression results in a 34% earnings penalty. So, will we see a mass class action against social media coming down the line as happened to the smoking businesses and the talcum powder lawsuit? I would not be surprised in the slightest, if I am honest.


So, from a man who has worked in the marketing industry for years, I hope this is of interest to you and can make you feel more in control of your child’s social media use. I hope this has been partly an educational read for you, and I hope also that I have persuaded you of my arguments using studies and facts.


Now, don’t let the echo-chamber drown out the other voices! Stay safe online!


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