#TweenTalks: How To Talk To Kids About The Dangers Of Social Media

child psychologist Dr Alison McClymont dives into the worrying impact of social media on kids and how to start conversations about what they're seeing online.

social media

by Grazia Contributor |
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Welcome to #TweenTalks, a weekly franchise by Grazia’s parenting community, The Juggle (@TheJuggleUK on Instagram) where we speak to experts about tackling touchy subject with your tween-age kids. This week, child psychologist and author of How To Help Your Child Cope With Anything, Dr Alison McClymont, dives into the worrying impact of social media on kids and how to start conversations about what they're seeing online.

While the majority of social media platforms aren’t meant to allow anyone under the age of 13 to have an account, how many of us, anecdotally know children significantly younger than this who use social media?

In fact, a 2022 study by Ofcom found that 60% of eight to 11-year-olds actually do use social media, and had a social media presence on at least one app. Even more worrying, 33% of parents surveyed said their five- to seven-year-olds had a social media presence and 62% of eight- to 17-year-olds had a profile that ‘friends and family didn’t see’. I think it’s fair to say then that social media use amongst pre-teens is not only widespread, but it is also far less monitored by adults than we might want to believe.

If this worries you, you’re not alone. There’s an influx of content on social media that can affect your body image, and the stats around increasing rates of anxiety, self-esteem issues and self-harm among children are extremely concerning. While we can’t necessarily say social media directly causes these things, we can have an honest conversation about what our children are being exposed to online and how it can impact them mentally.

Let’s start with body image. We’ve all seen the reports around the harrowing impact of social media when it comes to body image, sometimes been called the ‘Love Island’ or ‘Influencer’ effect, but in essence it’s thanks to the high degree of filtered, perfected and curated images of bodies that are presented on social media, and often to young people, that directly impact their idea of ‘perfection’ when it comes to beauty – a pursuit which clinical data shows increases rates of anxiety, body image worries and disordered eating.

To put some stats behind that statement, in a recent survey of 13- and 14-year-olds, 26% of boys said that social media caused them to worry about their body - specifically the desire to be tall and muscular. This becomes extremely concerning when combined with the idea that 10% of boys surveyed said they would consider taking steroids to achieve this ideal. I have seen through my own clinical work that the number of boys and young men seeking treatment for eating disorders has exponentially grown over the last few years. One survey on the mental health of children and young people in the UK showed that 40% of boys surveyed describe eating patterns that could be considered disordered, with eating disorder diagnoses in boys has doubled since 2020.

The real life and very sobering impact of this social media barrage of perfect bodies, effects none more so than tween and teen girls. Post-pandemic Britain has seen a widespread mental health epidemic in teenage girls, the likes of which has never been seen previously.

Girls are 30% more likely than boys to suffer from mental health issues by the age of 11.

A recent study by the NHS said that record numbers of girls under 15 are accessing mental health services. Girls were 30% more likely than boys to suffer from mental health issues by the age of 11, and by the time they reached 18 that figure doubled. There could be many reasons for this, but with 61% of 10–17-year-old girls reporting low self-esteem in connection to ‘images they see’, according to a recent research study by Dove, I think it is fair to interpret that the messages around body image and self-worth do have a massive part to play in this. We know that advertisers are twice as likely to promote ‘aspirational images of beauty’ to sell their products to girls as they are to boys, but at what cost?

The research around the impact of social media on self-harm is even more harrowing.  A study by the university of Oxford found a concerning correlation between self-harm image exposure on social media and an increase in self-harming behaviours. While the study did not prove that social media’s causes self-harm, the fact that NHS data shows a 22% increase in 2023 alone for self-harm admissions in eight- to 17-year-olds, we are right to be alarmed.

So, what should we do if we are worried about the images our child is discussing or we suspect they might have been exposed to? Whether it’s images that could promote self-harm or the influx of filtered, unrealistic photos that can impact a child’s body image – the key thing is to find out exactly what your child is seeing online and give them space to talk about how it makes them feel.

You can’t protect children from every single thing they’ll see online, but you can create an environment where they feel comfortable bringing up social media to you and processing how it impacts their emotions. The talk then is all about fact-finding, to prevent you from being one of the above parents who has no idea about their child’s social media account.

Ask your child to explain to you what they’ve been seeing on social media recently

The key thing here is to allow the child to speak and to articulate what they saw. It can be really helpful to ask fact-finding questions such as ‘When was this?’, ‘How did you come across this image?’, ‘What were you looking at beforehand?’. This helps us to understand whether the child was directly looking for the image, it was shared with them or it was spontaneous, and we need this data as it will dictate what actions we need to put in place to manage this situation

Ask your child to explain in their own words how they feel about the images they see online

Don’t put words in their mouth and try hard not to judge the child’s response if they say something like ‘It was quite funny’ children will often say this when they feel confused or overwhelmed, as a protective response.

Ask your child to reflect on this experience especially if someone shared an image they were concerned with. Offer the child actual phrases to use or options of people to inform like ‘If someone shows you this next time, maybe you can tell them…’

When children feel overwhelmed, they will often freeze and not know what to say or do so to give them direct instructions of what to do in a situation like this can be very supportive.

Ask your child why they feel drawn to certain types of media

If they searched for an image that upset them or an image that caused them to feel bad about themselves, listen to their explanation and offer supportive comments. If you are worried about the type of media your child is accessing on a regular basis, calmly and directly state your concerns. Explain why you think these images may be having a negative impact on them, stick to the facts of what you observe and be prepared for a defensive response from your child. A defensive response is ok, it is showing a desire to engage in the topic! If your child clams up, reiterate your concerns and that you would like to talk to them about it when they’re ready.

Don’t relate your child’s experience to your own or other children’s you may know.

Children rarely respond positively to comparison, particularly when they feel told off, so this may be a surefire way to shut a conversation down before it starts.

You want your child to talk 70% of the time and you to speak 30% of the time, only interjecting when the conversation is stuck or your child needs help to unpick something. We want to create a conversation where your child can be open (remember the data about the profile parents don’t know about!) and for them to find a space in us where they can ask questions and to feel supported.

Try not to do too much talking yourself

When talking to children about mental health it is important they are met with an environment in which they are free to talk, this may mean removing judgment or the desire to ‘jump in’ to the conversation. We need to encourage a space so they can ask questions but also reveal struggles and confusion. Don’t be so keen to ‘problem solve’ that you miss the crux of the issue.

About the expert: Dr Alison McClymont

Dr Alison McClymont is a psychologist with 10 year's experience working in child and adolescent mental health settings, specialising in trauma and emotional resilience. She runs her own private practice and has authored an upcoming book, How to Help Your Child Cope with Anything, which is published by Orion comes out August 29th. You can pre-order Dr McClymont's book here.

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