BY HANNAH BARR
What was your first experience of the internet? I don’t know if this was my first experience, but I remember being about nine or ten and having to do a school project on a European city and searching the web for everything it could tell me about Amsterdam.
I proudly presented my report to my teacher who took one look at the front cover with its picture of rolling hills before declaring ‘Amsterdam is flat’. It was an early lesson in not everything on the internet is true.
I grew up in that weird stage where my generation was more internet savvy than our parent’s generation. I could speak HTML like it was a second language from time spent designing and re-designing my MySpace page, and by the time I was an undergrad, everyone had a laptop and a smartphone and lectures were spent Googling things like ‘why did St Perpetua turn into a man?’ and ‘what job can you do with a theology degree?’
My Facebook photos document my life as a student: sweaty pictures from Freshers’ Week, my study abroad year in Canada, an artfully shot picture of my dissertation which caused everyone to ask why there was a picture of Voldemort on my dissertation (it’s not Voldemort, it’s a beautiful painting by Charlie Mackesy).
There are pros and cons to coming of age during the golden years of the iPhone and social media. We were too young to plaster pictures of underage bacchanal living on Facebook and too sensible to post them when we were of legal age.
And as much as the internet made finding research journals easier when it came to essays, it did make us lazier as Wikipedia became the starting point for every assignment. We are shrewd enough to be cynical about the lives we see on social media, and yet it does look like everyone else is living the perfect life; meanwhile there’s a leak in my roof, I forgot to put the bins out this morning and I’m still not married to Zac Efron. (But I’m living my best witty and insightful life on Twitter).
A report released by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, warns that children are unprepared for the social media ‘cliff edge’ as they start secondary school.
The report, Life in ‘likes’, researched the effect of social media on 8-12-year-olds and contrasts the ways in which younger children use the internet and social media initially for discovering and creativity. However, as they get older, the report stats that children’s use of it becomes more dependent on seeking affirmation from it and using it at the expense of other activities.
One of the key elements of the report is the need to develop online resilience. At Doorsteps, the resilience of children and young people in Oxford is one of our key aims, especially as we are also deeply concerned with the growing numbers of children experiencing mental health problems.
The report makes recommendations to four groups: the Government, parents, schools, and social media companies, with the first three all tasked with building children and young people’s digital literacy and resilience.
This involves ensuring greater awareness around online safety, to do more to tackle the pressure to on young people to adapt who their online presence, and to cultivate digital resilience.
From our work on building resilience in our Doorsteps initiatives, it strikes me that digital resilience follows from developing resilience more generally.
This requires walking a tightrope between encouraging young people to be themselves – to explore the things that make their souls sing and to be comfortable with who they are – with the need for security-inducing boundaries.
It’s why it’s important for parents to ask their children before they post anecdotes or pictures of them on social media and also why parents need to be strict about ensuring their children aren’t on social media platforms below, not just their stated age allowance, but the maturity of the child themselves.
Perhaps the most dispiriting takeaway from Life in ‘likes’ is that the children interviewed knew about the message to be themselves – but it made no difference. The pressure to reinvent themselves for social media, the craving of likes, the desperate need for affirmation from the disembodied, is simply too strong.
This is why projects like Find Your Fire matter.
This is why Doorsteps will run a conference on child mental health this year.
Because you don’t build resilience in young people with a word; you build it with hard graft. But it’s worth it. More than any like on Facebook, any re-tweet on Twitter, or follower on Instagram.
From the social media generation innocent enough that we were burned on more occasion but savvy enough to know there is still life beyond our smartphones, we owe it to this generation and future generations who have never lived life offline.
Photos: freestocks.org, pixabay.com, Camille Minouflet