Welcome to the first official article on the blog! Social media is a huge part of our society; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat – we all have them. But, did you know, that social media can have a negative impact on our mental health. This article explores, with the help of the cyber crime unit at South Wales Police, the negative impact social media has on children and its long term effects.

Social media is used worldwide. We share, connect, play and laugh. Studies show that over half of ten-year olds in the UK have their own smartphone, and over 70% of children under the age of 13 have a social media account. This article explores the dangerous impact social media can have on children and answer the question on every parent’s mind – how young is too young for social media? I asked parents of children under the age of the thirteen to fill out a survey regarding child safety on social media. Over 76% claimed their child owns a social media account, and the same 76% agreed that social media is unsafe for children under the age of thirteen, sixteen being the overall age deemed most appropriate. 

The internet can be a dangerous place, where illegal material including videos, images and text is all too readily accessible. Children are exposed to three major risks on the internet; content risk, conduct risk and contact risk. Content risk is exposure to content such as porn, extreme violence, hate speech and radicalisation. Conduct risk is participation in harmful situations such as bullying, sexting, harassing, and promoting harmful behaviour such as suicide. Contact risk is when children are victims of harmful situations such as being bullied, stalked, meeting strangers and violence. An example case (2019) concerns a young man, identified as ‘A’, who was charged with possession of child pornography. At the time of the offence, ‘A’ was 21 years of age and identified as a gay male. He had a learning disability, “with an impairment in adaptive social functioning, and if he was not provided support, he would not be able to manage his personal and domestic care needs.” (2019, EWCOP 2. Pg. 5). A’s parents became concerned about his internet use in 2016, three years prior to his offence. They discovered that he was using his Facebook account to share intimate photographs of his genitals, with unknown males. Due to his low literacy level, which impacted his ability to write three- or four-letter words, ‘A’ used the photographs and videos to communicate. This impaired his ability to safely navigate the internet, and as a result of this, he was able to access extreme pornographic sites through suggested links from these men. As a result of his impairment and low literacy level. ‘A’ was subsequently given a warning and an internet safety course. Although ‘A’ at the time was a 21-year-old man, his mental capacity is similar to a child’s, and his case highlights the dangers children are exposed to on social media and the internet. 

According to an Ofcom report, 96% of children aged eight to fifteen in the UK have been told how to use the internet safely, either from a teacher or a parent. But despite receiving this advice, children are still exposed to dangerous and inappropriate content online. In particular, over the past four years there has been an increase in the proportions of children claiming to have seen anything hateful online regarding a particular group of people; based on, for instance, gender, religion, disability, sexuality or gender identity. Despite seeing hateful content, majority of children decided to ignore it, and one in ten chose to either share or comment, inadvertently giving the hateful content greater exposure. The Police Online Investigations Team (POLIT) at South Wales Police investigate online child abuse matters, including child pornography, grooming and sexting between minors. I spoke with Richard Andrews from the Digital Forensics Unit, who examines devices for evidence for the online investigations team. Our discussion began with social media use in modern society, for which he quoted “the definition of friends has changed. Before all of this came about, we would have a close friendship network of ten to fifteen people, because that’s all you could really cope with. But now if you go to peoples Facebook or Instagram, they’re friends or following hundreds, even thousands of people. And it’s not possible to have that many friends in the real world”. He continues that “social media is the new normal, and children are often influenced by these big internet personalities and have a desire to become one”. He highlighted that grooming and sexting is something they regularly deal with, and there have been many cases where children have shared indecent images and videos of themselves to increase their following count. An example of this regards a case they recently had with a young girl using TikTok, a social media platform highly popular with children under the age of thirteen. The child was regularly using the app sharing videos of herself and documenting her life and grew obsessed with gaining followers. Her mother admitted to letting the child use the app unsupervised, and later discovered that she was talking to strangers and posting indecent images of herself, including of her private parts. Andrews quoted that “this is a perfect example of why parents should fully monitor their children’s accounts, as you cannot always be sure who it is, they are talking to online. And some children will do anything to increase their followers”. Police educated the mother and advised her to sit with the child when using her phone, in order to completely monitor the account. They also explained that although the videos were taken down from her account, you will never be able to completely delete the videos. When you share a video on any social media platform, the video spreads from one device, to millions. As accounts like TikTok allow you to screen record, or save videos, the video can now be stored onto millions of devices and shared to a wider network. So, although you can delete the video from its original source, it doesn’t delete it from other devices the video is stored on worldwide.  

Kate Bressington, a civilian working with Digital Forensics at South Wales Police, shared her thoughts on social media platforms popular with children in 2020. She believes that all platforms can be dangerous for different reasons, but states that sexting is an issue they deal with regularly. Apps like Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and Instagram are popular for sexting cases, as lack of security and supervision means children can talk to anyone they meet online. UK law states that it is illegal for anyone to take indecent images of someone under the age of eighteen. Kate stressed that not everyone is aware of this, which leads to a high number of charges for child pornography, that may appear harmless to the perpetrator. She examples a case they had recently regarding an eighteen-year-old male who had been dating a sixteen-year-old female. The male had taken photos of the two having sex, with the girl’s permission, on his phone and shared it with a friend on Snapchat. As the female was under the legal age for indecent images and videos, the male’s phone was confiscated by digital forensics for child pornography. Kate shares that due to lack of education, cases like this are common, but most often only a warning is issued. Working with digital forensics has opened Kate’s eyes to the dangers of social media, and she feels before taking on this role she was clueless to what children are exposed to. One of the leading platforms for children in 2020, is TikTok, popular for its short videos, dances and challenges. It is currently used by 13% of twelve-to-fifteen-year olds in the UK, and one of apps leading uses is for challenges, to gain followers and likes. Here are six of the most popular challenges children and teenagers have tried this year. 

The Skullbreaker challenge

This challenge was popular at the beginning of year with younger teenagers. The challenge involves three people standing next to each other in a line. The middle person jumps in the air, and the people either side of them kicks their legs out in an attempt to knock them on the floor. This challenge has led to some serious injuries, including fractures and concussions. 

Throw it in the air challenge

Again, popular with younger teenagers, this challenge involves a group of people standing in a circle, with their heads bend forward in a huddle. A member of the group then throws an object in the air, and everyone must remain still until the object has landed on top of someone. The object can range from a small ball, to a bike or chair. 

The outlet challenge

One of the most dangerous challenges popular this year was the outlet challenge. It involves sliding a penny behind a phone charger that is partially plugged in, with the intention of creating a spark. This challenge has led to several house fires. 

The Cha-Cha Slide challenge

Popular with older teenagers, this challenge involved swerving your car to the lyrics of the popular dance song the Cha-Cha Slide. Police warned that this challenge is extremely dangerous and could lead to cars turning over and collisions. 

The bright eye challenge

The aim of the challenge for TikTok users is to change the colour of their eye. It involves mixing hand sanitizer, jelly, bleach and shaving cream into a bag, and placing it on your eye for one minute. Supposedly, this is supposed to lighten your eye colour. 

The pass out challenge

This challenge involves snapping your head quickly back and forth and side to side more than a dozen times. The result is that the user would pass out, and in more extreme cases, users would attempt this challenge on a staircase. 

These challenges are dangerous and have been shared worldwide. Kate stressed that when young children see challenges like this, and notice their popularity, they may attempt them. This can lead to life changing, and even life-threatening consequences. 

Social media has changed a lot about the way in which we live and has also changed the way we are bullied. A study conducted in 2018 by Comparitech states that out of one thousand parents, 60% reported that their children were being bullied, most of which was digital. Cyberbullying is common with children and teenagers, Facebook being one of the leading sources. It can affect children and teenagers both mentally and physically, and even have an impact on their education. An unknown source shared that her son was a victim of a traumatic cyberbullying experience, which left him with long term mental health conditions. She quoted that “my sixteen-year-old son was cyber bullied on Facebook over a period of 8 hours. The event was so traumatic it caused my son to have an acute psychotic break and to be hospitalized in an adolescent psychiatric ward for almost a month. He is changed forever and will never be the same mentally. Internet bullying can hurt and affect people and kids need to know this. These kids are not being punished in any way and think the incident is funny! We know it is life changing.” (Cyberbullying Research Centre, 2020). Richard Paskell, and investigator for the Online Investigations Team at South Wales Police believes that most children don’t understand the consequences of bullying online. He shared that as a father of four, one of the biggest risks he believes his children are exposed to on the internet and social media, is cyberbullying. To tackle this, he quotes, “I stop my children from using devices after a certain time. My children know that once the clock hits 9pm, they have to put their devices away.” He shared that if parents completely monitor their children’s accounts, and set rules, then the risk of cyberbullying could decrease. He also believes that education in schools about the matter could help children understand the serious impact words can have on an individual. 

As social media platforms continue to grow, it becomes harder to completely monitor a child’s account. Richard Andrews (digital forensics) quotes that “one-week Facebook is the most popular app, the next it is TikTok. The more they grow, the harder it is for us, as professionals, to detect dangerous content circulating the web. Parents need to be completely aware of the danger’s children are exposed to online in order to completely monitor their accounts.” As a final message to parents, he stressed don’t just check messages, check trending challenges and content, and educate your child on how best to tackle such issues.

Thank you for reading!

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