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‘Lonely, sad and acting entitled’: Is social media damaging Irish kids?

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Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s billionaire co-founder, was unequivocal.

nstagram, which the social media giant has owned since 2012, is more likely to have a positive impact on the mental health of users, he said, than a negative one.

Zuckerberg was speaking in March this year. But in recent days, the Wall Street Journal reported that internal Facebook research demonstrates that the firm has been aware for more than two years about how toxic Instagram can be for teenagers, especially girls.

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” according to a slide from one internal presentation in 2019, which was seen by the Wall Street Journal.

Another presentation, from March 2020, revealed that “32pc of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse”.

Another piece of research was just as damning: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

“Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm,” according to an internal report, which said pressure to share only the best moments and to look perfect could push teens into depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders.

The most disturbing finding revealed that among users who reported suicidal thoughts, 13pc in the UK and 6pc in the US traced them back to Instagram.

Instagram currently allows children as young as 13 to create an account and use the service. It is also reported to be developing a version of the platform for under 13s.

Since its launch in 2010, around the time that smartphones started to reach a critical mass, Instagram has become a sensation — and helped pave the way for other visual social media platforms such as TikTok and Snapchat.

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Ariana Grande, who is the most-followed woman on the popular social-media platform

Ariana Grande, who is the most-followed woman on the popular social-media platform

It’s the medium of choice for such celebrities as Kim Kardashian, Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande, who have hundreds of millions of followers between them.

Ollwyn Moran is the founder of Cognikids, a Dublin-based firm that makes early childhood development support products. She believes 13 is far too young for anyone to have an account on Instagram or another of the platforms.

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Ollwyn Moran with her children Matthew (16) and Alex (14)

Ollwyn Moran with her children Matthew (16) and Alex (14)

Ollwyn Moran with her children Matthew (16) and Alex (14)

“Children around this age do not understand that what they see on Instagram is a single snapshot of a single moment in someone’s day,” she says. “They don’t understand that people only post the highlights or contrived ‘best bits’ of their life. This can elicit feelings of envy with this age group and the distorted belief that others lead happier lives and more successful lives than they do. It can lead to anxiety, stress and even bullying behaviour to make themselves feel better by ‘taking down’ another person.

“Our children are the most connected digitally, yet they report the highest levels of feeling lonely. Study after study shows that they are lonely, sad and act entitled. They get bored and easily frustrated, which makes them less patient. They also find it difficult to regulate their emotions.”

And yet, children far younger than 13 have access to social media platforms such as Instagram. Earlier this month, a survey from CyberSafeKids revealed that 84pc of Irish pre-teens between the ages of eight and 12 use at least one of the platforms.

The research also showed that 93pc of pre-teens have some kind of phone, tablet or other smart device, with almost one-third saying that they have been bullied online.

“The high usage of social media and gaming apps with private messaging and group chat functionality is a huge concern for pre-teens today,” Moran says, “both from a neuroscience and developmental perspective and as a parent looking out for their children’s well-being. Access to social media and gaming apps for this audience is so easy for pre-teens these days.

“Our reliance and tolerance of technology in the hands of our pre-teens has increased over the last 18-months due to the pandemic. [First Holy] Communion, or around eight years of age, rather than Confirmation, roughly 12 years of age, is now the time that ownership of a child’s first handheld device occurs.

“The whole area of social media use and abuse is so unregulated and most often unsupervised — that is until an issue arises — that it is potentially a very dangerous space for children to be.”

The author and academic Mary McGill has been widely acclaimed for her recently published book, The Visibility Trap, which offers a deep dive into the phenomena of sexism and surveillance on social media.

Comparison culture

“Given what we know about the lack of regulation and safeguarding around many of these platforms, children using them is generally not a good idea,” she says.

She was not surprised by the leaked Facebook data about Instagram. “The report reflects many findings that were already out there, particularly when it comes to online practices focused on the body and beauty. Many young women — and people in general — have a very ambivalent relationship with social media.

“What is striking about the Facebook data is that it confirms that Instagram is a source of specific kinds of harm because it puts such an emphasis on the visual.

“That emphasis might be fine, and even fun, if you’re using it to document your food or your pet or get interior design ideas. But if you are an adolescent, with all that entails including the comparison culture that predates social media, it can have a negative impact especially for those more prone to self-criticism and comparison.”

Central to the rise of Instagram has been the growth of the selfie. The term is still comparatively new — it was only added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013 — and few have studied the phenomenon. McGill is an exception.

“Selfies are often dismissed as frivolous but they are not frivolous to the many young women — and others — who take them. Selfies can be fun, they can give you a boost and they can capture a memory or something important to you.

“But they can also make you feel bad about yourself and make you aware of ‘flaws’ you might otherwise never have spotted. This range of experiences are deeply felt by young women. If we dismiss them, we risk overlooking the very real complexities they are grappling with as they try to navigate this online world, which has become an inescapable part of modern life.”

Joanna Fortune is a child and family psychotherapist whose most recent book is 15-Minute Parenting: The Teenage Years. Although she says social media can be a force for good thanks to people such as the disability rights campaigner Sinéad Burke, Instagram, Snapchat and Tik Tok have significant drawbacks.

She says anxiety around social media is commonplace among the teenagers that she counsels.

“We have chronic low levels of self-esteem in teenagers, especially teenage girls. There has been a lot of soft evidence for this, including the Ireland-specific research from [beauty brand] Dove earlier this year, but this internal Facebook research confirms it. It’s particularly uncomfortable to know that Facebook commissioned the research and then sat on what they found.”

The Dove research makes for sobering reading. Sixty three per cent of girls in this country reported not attending a school-related event because of the way they felt about their appearance while 66pc said they did not attend a doctor’s appointment because they did not feel good about the way they looked.

Fortune believes social media giants should be held to account. “I would like to see more transparency. I would like to see these companies have a role [in helping to reduce stigma] by, at least, funding community-based organisations or charities like Cyber Safe Ireland to deliver media-critical analysis skills workshops. Children can often struggle to distinguish between fantasy and reality online.

“Social media companies need to acknowledge their role in this [low self-esteem issues] and to fund programmes that teach kids how to use social media responsibly.”

She says social media influencers need to look long and hard at the content they are pushing out, although she is heartened by the sea-change undertaken by some, including Roz Purcell.

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Roz Purcell has spoken about the importance of posting photos of herself that don’t feature the sort of filters that so many celebrities apply to make themselves look better

Roz Purcell has spoken about the importance of posting photos of herself that don’t feature the sort of filters that so many celebrities apply to make themselves look better

Roz Purcell has spoken about the importance of posting photos of herself that don’t feature the sort of filters that so many celebrities apply to make themselves look better

The Tipperary model has spoken about the importance of being real on Instagram and she frequently makes a point of posting photos of herself that don’t feature the sort of filters that so many celebrities apply to make themselves look better and, therefore, distort reality.

Ultimately, Joanna Fortune believes parents must play a critical role in keeping their child safe. “It is not acceptable for a parent to say, ‘Gosh, I really don’t get that social media stuff.’ That’s actually reckless in today’s world.

“We are parenting in a digital age, so that kind of attitude is not good enough. We have to get online and learn the language, learn the vernacular and stop with the talk about ‘In my day’. This is how kids communicate today and you want your influence to have a bearing. You need to have that critical analysis conversation.”

Fortune says the best results come with the parent who approaches their child with calmness and compassion. “Talk to them about this [Facebook] research.

“Say, ‘Are you aware of this? I wasn’t. It was such a discovery for me. I’d love to talk to you about it so I can better understand it’. If you come to your 14-year-old in such a way that they think, ‘Here’s a lecture coming’, there’s a good chance they’ll shut down. They’ll nod along, but they’re not engaged.”

Explaining the rationale

For Ollwyn Moran, the tendency for parents to give their children phones and smart devices at an early age is doing more harm than good. The mother of two boys, Matthew (16) and Alex (14), has a guideline that she has stuck to. “The rule in our house was that they would get their first smartphone after their Junior Certificate in secondary school. That rule is still in place.

“From the first time my eldest asked for a smartphone, I explained in age-appropriate language why I was setting the Junior Cert as a marker for getting a smartphone. He was not happy with the decision, but he understood. This is the important point. Explaining the rationale behind a decision to a child, or anyone in fact, will most often get buy-in and co-operation.”

Matthew has had a phone since he completed the Junior Cert last year.

“I can tell you that it is definitely easier to deal with the requests for a smartphone rather than continually having to deal with the much more complex and worrying issues that owning a smartphone brings up for parents.”

Facebook, meanwhile, has been swift to defend itself. When Review contacted its European, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) headquarters in Dublin, a spokesperson emailed the following statement:

“We invest in research to help us discover gaps in our systems and identify problems to fix. We gave the writers interviews and statements to put that work into context and to highlight the changes we have made. They’ve chosen to omit most of it. What’s left is an incomplete, and to our view, distorted picture of our company.

“Any story built on an arbitrary set of leaked documents is going to lack context, particularly documents that are now years old. The [Wall Street] Journal has cherry-picked pieces of those documents to tell a story that Facebook doesn’t care about fixing its problems. That’s simply not true.”

‘The kids know I can see what they’re doing on social media’

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Louise and husband Declan with 13-year-old twins Ruth and Jack

Louise and husband Declan with 13-year-old twins Ruth and Jack

Louise and husband Declan with 13-year-old twins Ruth and Jack

Louise McDonnell from Enniscrone, Co Sligo knows her way around social media better than most. The mother of teenage twins, Ruth and Jack (13), runs social media accounts for clients and trains people how to use them.
She believes there’s no point in parents burying their head in the sand when it comes to the online world — they need to know what’s out there so they can protect their kids.
Her children got phones a year ago when they were staying with an aunt for a week in Kildare. While they were keen to set up Instagram accounts when they first got them, Louise says they rarely use it. Their phones are mainly used for messaging friends on Snapchat and, since they went to secondary school, for looking up things for homework.
“Initially when they got the phones they were restricted to weekends only. Now they’re at secondary school, they’re on them a bit more for school work and they’d rather use the phone than the laptop,” she says.
During the summer Louise started using TikTok for her business and client community. “The kids are used to me being on social media. They also know I’m there and I can see what they’re doing,” she says.
While she says her children are not following any specific ‘influencers’, she regularly talks to them about what’s real and what’s not on social media. “They’re using social media more as a messaging platform and they don’t tend to put anything online. I’d be more worried about what they come across on YouTube. They know they’re being supervised online and they also know what’s acceptable in real life also applies on their phones”.
Louise believes it’s important to know how children use social media, how it will change as they get older and move through school especially when it comes to things like group chats. “That’s why I’d be keeping an eye. It’s about educating them to be careful. I don’t want to come across that I’m on top of all this — I use social media in a different way to the kids. I always think you’re better to be in or around things with them rather than on the outside,” she says.
 

‘We have to be honest with each other. You have to let them find their way’

For Kildare mother Sharyn O’Hagan, keeping the conversation about her eldest son’s online activity is key to keeping him safe.
Mum to Lee (13) and Dean (10), Sharyn who runs an online fashion business, says while she can’t police everything her eldest son does online, the only social media app he’s currently allowed is Snapchat which allows him to keep in touch with his friends.
She’s found that lately Lee has gravitated towards catching up with friends on Zoom at the weekend. And while his younger brother would like TikTok, his mum is staying firmly in the ‘no’ camp for now.
Lee, who got his phone when he was 11, uses it mainly for messaging friends. Social media — aside from Snapchat — hasn’t raised its head yet. “Facebook or Instagram haven’t been mentioned,” says Sharyn.
She does have concerns about these two social media outlets for her children because of the way things can be portrayed, because kids might end up thinking that’s real life. She’s also wary about how ‘likes’ can be seen as a validation, especially for children.
“So far he’s quite sensible,” she says of her eldest son.
“I check in with him and ask him things like, do you know who your friends are and are you being careful,” she adds.
“We have to be honest with each other. I can’t read every message. You have to let them find their way. My way is to keep talking and asking,” she says.
 

Case studies by Kathy Donaghy

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