Today marks the start of Children's Mental Health Week - originally launched in 2015 by children's charity Place2Be to support children and young people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. Now in its fourth year, more schools and organisations than ever are getting involved. The theme this year is ‘Being Ourselves’ – encouraging children and young people to feel comfortable with who they are and to celebrate what makes them unique.
In November 2017, Mishcon de Reya hosted an event for around 80 children aged 8-16 with Place2Be. This was the latest collaboration in a long standing relationship, with the shared aim of promoting children's voices and views on key issues. In 2016, we produced 'Splitting Up: A Child's Guide to a Grown Up Problem' – a book written for adults by children on the topic of parental separation. This latest event presented an opportunity for children from a variety of backgrounds to share what really matters to them - what they think, what they worry and care about most and what influences and shapes their lives.
The event started with an introduction from Mishcon de Reya's Head of Family law, Sandra Davis, with CBBC and Radio 1 presenter Katie Thistleton compéring. The children got into smaller groups with other pupils their own age from four Place2Be London schools to discuss stress and pressure; identity, community and relationships; social media and technology; and politics and current affairs.
Many of the children became particularly animated when it came to the topic of social media and technology, identifying some upsides, and a variety of downsides. The latter included peer pressure and a need to conform, cyber bullying, negative health implications - such as an impact on vision, behaviour and attitudes - and concerns about security.
It became clear that the use of social media amongst the pupils who attended this session is prolific, with some children saying that they spend up to eight hours a day on their phones or tablets. All the children we interviewed have the use of a phone or tablet, and most access the internet for at least one hour per day. Some of children as young as eight said that they felt they had an addiction to social media and expressed a desire to come off it, with one commenting: "I am on it way too long. It is very addictive to me so I want to try and stop using my gadgets." Another suggested that time could be better spent elsewhere: "If we spend too much time on it we are never going to learn lots of other things" Some children of primary school age say they have opted out of social media because they were the victim of cyber bullying.
Most adults today can recall the early days of the internet, and have been amongst the first to live at least some of their lives out online. But how do you parent a child born into the digital age? With technology evolving at pace, newer social media platforms – such as Musical.ly and Snapchat - are becoming commonplace, meanwhile Facebook and Twitter – social media staples for many adults – are often overlooked by the younger generation.
An obvious challenge for parents is how to best protect their children on social media when they do not fully understand the platforms they are using. In fact, changes online happen at such a rate that a child with regular internet access can create and use accounts completely unbeknown to their parents. Even when a parent is able to monitor their child's use of social media, where is the line between too much interference and not enough? These are unchartered waters, and a means of navigation remains elusive.
One pupil identified the extension of bullying from the playground into the home via social media: "That’s one of the bad things about internet being created. Before bullying was physical and home was a safe place, but now because of technology home isn’t really a safe place anymore." What we are seeing today is children exposed around the clock to critique and exclusion, tantamount to a never-ending popularity contest. The virtual world does not sleep and its tentacles will extend to wherever there is an internet connection.
Parents may, understandably, be at a loss as to how to ensure their children's safety online. Many of the children themselves spoke of the risks of social media - from the dangers of giving away too much personal information, to concerns over fake content and accounts. Comments included: "You never know who you're really talking to and it's not always safe. Children might believe everything they see" and "Young people do not know when to not give out information."
Later this year, Mishcon de Reya and Place2Be will again join forces to tackle the issues children raised about social media at this event. We must continue to listen to children, to find out about their online lives: the way they use social media, and to what end. These children are the experts, with some living almost as much of their lives online as off it. There is also a question around what social media companies should be doing to prioritise children's safety online. Once we have gathered insights and identified common themes, we can begin to build a framework for parents – most of whom, by comparison, have merely dipped a toe in the social media universe.