Online safety of children is a critical issue that is not being addressed in Ireland’s education system or by the social media companies, according to CyberSafeKids chief executive, Alex Cooney.
“Our data shows children are extremely active on social media, often unsupervised, leaving them highly vulnerable to bullying, grooming and exposure to violent or sexual content,” said Ms Cooney.
“We urge the government to invest heavily in more resources and campaigns to support both parents and educators. While organisations like CyberSafeKids barely have the funding to survive, many online service providers report annual profits in the billion.”
These comments were based on the publication of the CybersafeKids ‘Trends and Usage Report’, now in its eighth year. The survey reported that more than a quarter (26%) of young children surveyed experienced something online in the last year that upset or scared them. Of those, almost a third did not tell an adult, sibling or friend what they saw.
Almost all (93%) of 8- to 12-year-olds owned a smart device and almost half (47%) owned a smart phone. Almost a third of 8- to 12-year-olds and three quarters of 12- to 16-year-olds are allowed online whenever they want and girls are more likely to be victimised than boys with almost half (43%) saying they were targets of cyber bullying.
The report is based on a survey of more than 5,000 8- to 16-year-olds conducted between September 2022 and June 2023. Ms Cooney urged the Government to invest heavily in more resources and campaigns to support parents and educators.
The Government announced this week that it was looking for ways to help schools that are trying to ban smartphones. Education Minister Norma Foley announced that she is working closely with principals and parents organisations with a view to rolling out initiatives to support schools looking to roll out bans.
While campaigns to keep smartphones out of schools is overdue, as important and barely mentioned is urgent guidance and campaigns to support parents to keep smart phones and other smart devices out of bedrooms at night.
Former Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, recommended in 2019 that parents should not allow children to take phones and other electronic devices into their bedrooms or use them during mealtimes.
The UK organisation Ofcom reported earlier this year that, unbelievably, a fifth of 3- to 5-year-olds have their own mobile phone.
Research from the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (2019) reported that while frequent use of social media does appear to be linked to poorer mental health, the effects are not direct. Instead, it suggests such links might be down to social media use displacing other activities such as sleep or that it opens doors to cyberbullying.
Co-author of the study, Professor Russel Viner, said: “While we obsess about social media, how much do we obsess about how much our young people sleep? Not very much, but it is a more important factor, actually, in determining their mental health.”
The team suggested that one approach is for parents to keep phones out of children’s bedrooms, adding that teenagers need up to 10 hours sleep at night. Dr Dasha Nicholls from Imperial College London, one of the co-authors, said adults should ask children whether they were being bullied online.
“Parents and others need to know what their young people’s social environment is online as much as they do in the real world. When you account for cyberbullying, physical activity and sleep, the effect of social media in girls washes out completely,” Prof. Viner stated.
The study found the same trio of factors explained much less of the link in boys. Prof. Viner said it was likely other indirect effects were at play as it was unlikely a direct effect would only be seen in one gender. It could be that cyber bullying was less common, or less stressful, for boys than girls.
Tom Madders, campaign director of the charity Young Minds said the study highlighted the importance of educating children about how to use social media in a positive way.
“Social media can help young people express themselves, connect with friends and find support, but it can also intensify some of the hardest parts of growing up.
“We often hear from young people about the devastating effects of online bullying, and about how easy it is to find distressing content. As this report suggests, frequent use can also affect sleep, which can have a knock-on effect on mental health.”
Perhaps the real question is, if children as young as three and four years have their own phones to watch funny videos whenever they want, what is that doing to their creativity?
American record producer Rick Rubin in his brand new bookdescribes how from the moment we enter the world we perceive, filter and collect data. Much of that data is gathered through our senses as well as “higher frequencies that cannot physically be grasped”.
“The ability to look deeply is the root of creativity. To see past the ordinary and the mundane and get to what might otherwise be invisible. Each of us has a container within. It is constantly being filled with data. It holds the sum of all our thoughts, feelings, dreams and experiences in the world.
“Those experiences, feelings and dreams are filtered by the energy and awareness we give to what is going on outside around us and inside in our minds.” What happens when awe and inspiration and creativity is muted by the constant stream of mundane data being spoon-fed continually on screens?
Rubin suggest that what is lost is the ability to listen. “If we’re not listening we miss those cues and are left with a life that is sterile, boring, mundane.”
Does that sound familiar to what young people are telling us today? Does that resonate with high levels of boredom and poor self-esteem where every ounce of creativity has been sapped by the distraction of inane chatter on mobile devices?
“For the lungs to draw in air, they must first be emptied. For the mind to draw inspiration, it wants space to welcome the new. Most of what we see in the world holds the potential to inspire astonishment if looked at from a less jaded perspective. Train yourself to see the awe behind the obvious.”
The world of screen and smartphones is one of sleepless nights and humdrum days where the thrill of inspiration and awe has evaporated.
Do we want to listen to our psyche or our smartphone? Both science and art are telling us that, if we want to put creativity at the centre of our kids and all our lives, we all need to extract screens from filtering into every aspect of our day and out of the bedroom at night.
With mental health services for young people on the brink of collapse, there is an urgent need for Government to invest heavily in a public health campaign to get smartphones out of the hands of children and out of bedrooms at night.
- Dr Catherine Conlon is a public health doctor in Cork and former director of human health and nutrition, safefood
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