Concerns under-fives are becoming addicted to social media and the impact of cyberbullying are highlighted in a new report published this week by Barnardo’s.
‘Left to their Own Devices’, which assesses the impact of social media on children’s mental health makes for disturbing reading, while also recognising the many positives the online world can offer.
The children’s charity surveyed some of its children’s services practitioners to build a picture of how vulnerable children and young people it supports are affected by social media.
Their insights indicate some children start looking at social media as early as two-years-old. Half of the service practitioners responding said they had worked with children aged five to 10 who had been exposed to unsuitable or harmful materials online, and more than one third said children in that age group had been victims of cyberbullying.
When it comes to 11-15-year-olds, almost 8 in 10 (79%) practitioners said children they work with have experienced cyberbullying and 58% in the 16+ age group which has led to self-harm and suicide attempts.
Almost fourth-fifths of practitioners surveyed (78%) also said they had worked with children in this age group who had been groomed online and 78% also said they’d worked with children in this age group who had accessed unsuitable/harmful content.
One 11-year-old was supported by Barnardo’s after being driven to try and take her own life after being cyberbullied by children who discovered her dad had been jailed and was on the sex offenders’ register.
“I got horrible messages from children saying ‘Your dad’s a pervert Grace, you might as well just kill yourself now’.
“I couldn’t tell my mum because some of them said horrifying things about her too and I didn’t want her to be upset and crying all the time again.
“Due to the comments, I began to hate myself and felt ‘outside’ of everything so then I tried to kill myself.”
Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said:
“Although the internet offers incredible opportunities to learn and play, it also carries serious new risks from cyberbullying to online grooming.
“As our new report shows, these risks can have a devastating impact on the lives of the UK’s most vulnerable children.
“Recently, the Government has proposed welcome changes that would help regulate the internet and make it safer for children. It’s vital that the next Prime Minister keeps up the momentum and focuses specifically on protecting the most vulnerable.
“Our new report also calls for more research to help us understand the impact of social media on children’s mental health; high-quality education for children, parents and professionals; and a focus on wellbeing in every school.
“Children today see the internet as a natural part of their world. Our job as a society is to make sure children are protected online just as they are offline.”
However, Barnardo’s practitioners agreed social media holds many positives for vulnerable children and young people, including reducing isolation and loneliness, the ability to experiment and establish their own identity, discuss their social and political beliefs, and connect to people dealing with similar experiences.
Further steps Government, parents, schools and services can take to help keep children safe and healthy online will be one of the topics up for discussion at the Barnardo’s and Bright Blue conference tonight.
12-year-old Maisie* used to enjoy posting videos online but was then groomed and made to perform sex acts on her younger brother.
“I was proud of getting likes from all over the world for videos I posted of me and my brother Finlay*. But then I received lots of messages from a man from Florida who asked me to do special grown-up videos for him.
“Although I did not like doing them I got more than a thousand hearts for one video. But when I got home from school a police officer was at home talking to my mum and dad about my live videos and my mum was crying.”
Through her Barnardo’s support worker she is learning the internet and social media can be both good and bad and how she can use it safely. Her parents are learning about apps and how they can encourage Maisie to use the online world positively.
*Names have been changed to protect their identity.