The harmful use of social media by under-16s

In February 2023, 16-year-old Brianna Ghey was murdered by two other young people, and it is believed that the type of online content that the killers were able to access was just one of various ‘influences’ for the brutal crime.

In particular, Scarlett Jenkinson, who had formed a disturbing plan to murder Brianna, discussed this with Eddie Ratcliffe through a messaging app, and, additionally, shared a torture and murder website with him. The pair explored this and other dark, similar sites before taking Brianna’s life.

Now, Brianna’s mother, Esther Ghey, is calling for the creation of mobile phones suitable for under-16s as well as a social media ban for children.

Following her daughter’s death, Esther has been strongly campaigning for stricter rules surrounding access to online content for under-16s, stating: “We’d like a law introduced so that there are mobile phones that are only suitable for under-16s. So, if you’re over 16, you can have an adult phone, but then under the age of 16, you can have a children’s phone, which will not have all of the social media apps that are out there now.”

Esther also hopes that this idea would come with the implementation of software on the parents’ phone, linking to their child’s phone, featuring the ability to highlight keywords, with the aim of flagging up unusual conversations or harmful searches made on the devices, like what Scarlett and Eddie were looking at, helping to prevent other young people from being desensitised to such graphic content.

In her campaign, Esther has shared that even Brianna was addicted to her mobile phone and believes that it negatively contributed to her daughter’s mental health, explaining in a BBC interview that: “She had anxiety, she was socially isolated, because online social activity is nowhere near the same as face to face.”

Whilst the internet and social media apps feature the ability to virtually bring people together and message one another in an instant, there also seems to be an increasing issue of teenagers suffering with depression, isolation and more, perhaps enhanced by excessive mobile phone use.

In a 2023 article about social media induced loneliness, psychologist Mark Travers backs this idea up. He explained: “Social media can create a false sense of connection and belonging. Online interactions lack the nonverbal cues, physical presence, and emotional intimacy that are crucial to building and maintaining meaningful relationships. Social media can also lead to feelings of social comparison and inadequacy, as well as feelings of isolation due to constant FOMO (fear of missing out).”

Brianna also struggled with an eating disorder and self-harm, and it was only discovered after her death that she was accessing sites surrounding this topic, which were encouraging her to partake in this.

Unfortunately, it is far too easy for young people to access online communities that glorify eating disorders, especially on X, as opposed to other platforms that block hashtags related to the subject in an effort to reduce the harmful impact of such posts. Accounts under these hashtags often share triggering photos, toxic ‘tips’, and encourage dangerous behaviours to others. Strikingly, it is common for many of these users to be teenagers, and in most cases, young girls.

The algorithm on X displays suggested posts from other users and communities, and this includes the eating disorder communities who are promoting unhealthy lifestyles.

It can be suggested that the unrealistic beauty standards created by filters, editing, and more, posted across different platforms, affect the mental health of young people too, providing them with a false sense of inadequacy and a need to compare themselves to others. This can lead to diminished selfesteem and an increase in insecurity, which can trigger body dysmorphia and eating disorders in an attempt to meet unattainable beauty standards perpetuated by social media.

Esther Ghey’s call for the government to ban children from social media has been backed by Charlotte Nichols, Warrington North MP, who thinks that there should be a balance in doing so, with the belief that technology firms are not currently taking the responsibilities that they should be.

At the moment, it is simple for children to create a social media profile and interact with not only friends and family, but strangers too, with many platforms even suggesting children’s accounts as ‘friends’ to unknown adults.

A recent study completed by Western Sydney University’s Save the Children and the Young & Resilient Research Centre demonstrates that ‘children routinely interact with people they don’t know online and respond with caution when approached, but they want tech companies and governments to do more to keep them safe.’

Whilst most social media sites have an age restriction of 13+, there is typically no real enforcement of this as anybody can lie about their birthdate, including those younger than 13, who can simply select a false year of birth. This lack of enforcement allows many children, who are vulnerable due to their age, to gain access to pages, people and profiles that are inappropriate or even dangerous.

Many believe that entering a birthdate is not enough and that tech firms should create verification tools to prove that a given age is correct, with this being something that may work in numerous ways; it would reduce the number of children using social media as well as the number of dangerous adults posing as children.

On the other hand, it may be difficult to ID-check young people, due to the lack of IDs for this age group, and the financial barriers that some options, like passports, present.

Opposingly, others think that the harm of social media can be significantly reduced if monitored and limited parental figures and family members, whether that be through openly discussing these issues, manually checking the phones of young people on a regular basis, or the introduction of software suggested by Esther Ghey, that flags up specific words and alerts to parents or carers.

In October 2023, the Online Safety Act became law, with the goal of ensuring that platforms have appropriate systems to protect their users, described as a “landmark piece of legislation and (is) a real step forward in making the UK the safest place to be online as a child” by Jess Edwards, senior policy advisor at Barnardo’s.

This means that age assurance should be introduced, and platforms will now have a greater duty in taking action to prevent illegal, harmful, and sexual content, and will be expected to complete risk assessments to highlight dangers posed to children. The law will also enforce new criminal offences, such as cyberflashing and self-harm encouragement. Child sexual abuse is a key aspect of the act, which focuses on targeting grooming and using hashmatching technology to detect related material and immediately remove it.

However, some have criticised the limitations of the Online Safety Act, with the hash-matching technology not applying to private messages, meaning that, as it stands, apps like WhatsApp and iMessage could continue to host inappropriate material until this tech possibly comes into force to a further extent in around 2025. This possibility has been quite controversial too, with major apps detailing that doing so would weaken the security of their software, which currently protects its users in other ways.

It is hoped that the Online Safety Act will greatly decrease the number of children accessing age-inappropriate content depicting bullying, violence, pornography, and more, and provide much easier ways for users to report profiles and posts.

The UK government recently cracked down on other issues surrounding young people’s use of mobile phones, and in February, published new guidance for schools about prohibiting them, to help students focus solely on their education. In a press release announcing the news, the Department for Education wrote: “By the age of 12, 97 per cent of children have their own mobile phone, according to Ofcom. Using mobile phones in schools can lead to online bullying, distraction and classroom disruption, which, in turn, can lead to lost learning time.”

Policy Exchange formed a study in December 2023, and discovered that, amongst 162 secondary schools in England, responses suggested a ‘clear correlation’ between an effective phone ban and better school performance.

Though many believe that the prohibition of mobile phones will benefit the education of students and working environment for teachers, others have argued that there should be exceptions and limits to this ban. For example, in online conversations about the topic, some parents have expressed the importance of their children having a phone with them so that they can easily get in touch in case of an emergency and to maintain contact with family members throughout the day.

In response to government guidance, it appears that schools have opted for varying resolutions, with some prohibiting the use of phones in both the classroom and playground, others allowing them during breaks and lunch times, and in some cases, some investing in physical products to contain phones at the front of the classrooms to ensure no use during lesson time.

With social media addiction becoming an increasing issue for teenagers, it is possible that this ban comes as a result of some students finding it difficult to take regular or long breaks from their phones.

Social media apps, like TikTok, rely on a highly personalised algorithm to draw in its users and keep them ‘hooked’ for extended periods of time.

Due to the addictive nature of this, many young people find that they develop a dependency on their mobile phones, perhaps even feeling uneasy when they’re unable to use them and neglecting their personal and academic responsibilities because of it.

Evidently, the digital world contained inside just a simple mobile phone has impacted the mental health, behaviour, and safety of children around the world, and it begs the question – should there be an outright ban on social media under-16s?

Despite its flaws, it is hard to deny that social media platforms boast a wide range of benefits, such as connectivity, self-expression, education, entertainment, and activism. For a lot of people, social media has been highly useful in supporting their wellbeing, networking, and career.

Though, it is strongly debated that, particularly for children, the negatives far outweigh the positives and do not justify the risks; young people are becoming desensitised to graphic and inappropriate content which they are wrongly able to access, social media apps are highly addictive, children can suffer from a lower self-esteem, and they are, unfortunately, more likely to engage with dangerous users and strangers.

The current existence of thousands, maybe even millions, of profiles created by young people under a false year of birth means that it would be quite difficult to identify each account and completely enforce an outright ban, and with little ways of verifying the age of children, age-checking new users with certainty could prove to be hard.

If technology firms fail to focus their attention on the pressing issues that young people face on their apps, perhaps the public will turn their attention to different ideas like that of Esther Ghey’s, in which mobile phones could be specifically created for under16s, preventing them from being able to download social media apps and stumble across inappropriate websites to begin with.

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