{Since writing this blog post, I’ve watched this fascinating documentary ‘Plugged In’ which talks about the shocking impact of social media on teens. It is creating anxiety, depression and suicide. I would highly recommend that you take the time to watch it too.}

I sat down this week to write Episode 14 of the Truly Madly Smiley podcast – The One with the Frozen Planet. It’s my nod to the nation of disassociated families who use screens to check out. It’s the easiest way to check out from reality. Don’t worry – I do it too!

Many of us are not actually connected to our emotional selves. We are becoming terrified of our feelings. I’ve written before about the importance of feelings and you can hear children tell you why that’s important in this blog post 10 Must Read Insights from Children Who Talk About Their Feelings.

Hardly surprising really is it as the fast-paced overwhelming world we live in is a challenge for adults. Imagine what it’s like for children.

What is online life doing to children?

We don’t know the full impact of over use of screens and social media on our children, but what I’m starting to see in my work concerns me.

There are two sides to social media: at worst it’s highly addictive, a tool to numb out from stress and a bully’s playground. At best, it can be a wonderful place to connect with loved ones and liked minded souls and to learn more about the fascinating world that we live in.

If like me you were raised in the 80s, you’ll remember BBC computers, Encyclopaedia Britannica and good old fashioned playing out in the street. We have a different reality filter for what is ‘normal’ or healthy. As adults growing up in this era, we know that a lot of what we’re seeing online these days is not real, but for today’s children: this is the world they live in. It’s a scary reality which doesn’t match up to real life.

Where is the STOP button?

Children nowadays are flooded – you could even say brainwashed constantly with a stream of messages. Their evolving minds are like little sponges and their vulnerable personalities are being shaped by their environment.

What messages are they receiving? The world is a scary place. The pressure to look and be a certain way.  You can have anything you want at the click of a button. People are accessible 24/7. There is a distinct lack of healthy male and female role models. Coupled with lack of healthy boundaries and emotionally immaturity, this over exposure to skewed social norms affects their self esteem and their interpersonal relationships.

Lots of my teen clients are connected to Zelebrities and Reality TV stars on Instagram and this provides the landscape for their social norms. Beauty is a trout pout and filters. Communicating is over sharing and attention seeking: ‘Look at me! Like me! Follow me!’. The more likes you get, the more you feel validated and the more your self-worth increases.

Bullying, Addiction + Skewed Realities

A lack of boundaries means children are more susceptible to predators and online trolls. Children are growing up to an audience. Their privacy is limited. They feel the pressure of being online as often as possible which feeds their FOMO (fear of missing out) and anxiety. Their lives are played out on a stage.

It’s frightening and as I type, realise how ridiculous it has become. This is their everyday addiction. A little click here, a little scroll there gives their brain that dopamine high. The longest streak on Snapchat and perfected selfie waiting for likes. I wonder what will the fallout be?

When the excitement of an unrealistic world becomes normalised through excessive use, what’s next? Counselling for screen addiction? Can You Prevent Addiction in Your Child?

I can also see how children are also being unfairly held to unrealistic body images and lifestyles. Lots of them compare themselves to unattainable body image / lifestyle. Life is very black and white. It’s not a case of you’re popular or unpopular, beautiful or ugly, dumb or smart. Everybody is their own kind of beautiful. This is what I teach children in my new ‘Be your Own Best Friend’ Course.

This is their inspiration. What do you want to be when you grow up?

A Kardashian.

Whilst scrolling through Instagram the other day, I noticed the horrendous stream of rude, abusive and reaction-seeking comments underneath one particular post. A TV Presenter had posted their ‘Outfit of the Day,’ which caught my eye because it was brightly coloured. I thought she looked lovely.

You posted it therefore you asked for it

Others, possibly fuelled by envy gave their feedback. Their messages loaded with an entitlement which screams ‘You’re in the public eye, so you ask for this’. People are brave from behind a keyboard, aren’t they? They say things they wouldn’t say to your face. They don’t even know this woman. That kind of makes it worse in a way. Would you approach somebody in the street and brutally criticise their fashion choices? Of course not.

Of course, we’re all entitled to an opinion but a well-put together argument or point of view presented respectfully is no longer the preferred communication style. It’s unsolicited advice and feedback which leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. It’s hard enough to deal with criticism, backlash or rejection in real life, let alone be subjected to it for hours a day in a simulated situation which is of no importance at all.

This passive aggressive venting gives the insecure commenter a voice and an opinion. They’re not mature enough to use this opportunity wisely. Or indeed to have the awareness of how the recipient may feel.

Self Harm + Suicide says: ‘There is No Other Way!’

Maybe I’m being too kind. Perhaps they do? They want to hurt and they build themselves up by tearing others down. I tend to think it’s rather a lack of empathy. I see that a lot in my work too. A lack of empathy breeds narcissistic behaviour and I don’t think the world needs anymore of that. In fact what it needs: less judgement, more understanding, more compassion and definitely more empathy.

If there are adults online who think it’s acceptable to behave in those ways, it’s not surprising how the internet has become a bully’s playground where for some children there is no escape. They get bullied at school, they come home and they get bullied more online. They are desperate to be validated, to be seen and to be understood by friends. They feel left out, lonely and lost. Often these children who come to coaching, will internalise the message: ‘What is wrong with me?’  or ‘Why am I not good enough?’

There were over 19,000 Childline counselling sessions with children about bullying in 2017/18  Source: Bentley, H. et al (2018)

It appears there are increasing numbers of suicides, self harm and children having suicidal thoughts as a result of this online circus. It’s very obvious to me that children feel overwhelmed and totally ill-equipped to live in this crazy virtual world. It dangerous when you think they are exposed to this for a number of hours a day.

By the way, if you’re being bullied and you’re thinking ‘What’s wrong with me?’, I want you to know that there is NOTHING wrong with you and everything wrong with this set up and the fact that it’s OK for this to happen. I hope in the future there are laws to protect and keep us safe online.

So in the meantime, how can you keep yourselves safe?

What are the boundaries like around screens in your house? Here are a few questions you might like to think about.

  • How long do you permit your child to be online during the course of a day?
  • Do you have a no closed door policy around screens?
  • Do you have rules around screen time – like not before school, or homework or chores are done?
  • Are you aware of where your child is going online?
  • Do you talk to your child about their online likes and dislikes just like you would about any other area of their life?
  • How much about your family life, photos and day to day world do you share?
  • Do you have a shut off time?
  • Do you have screen free or duvet days?
  • Do you still read books and play board games?
  • Do you take regular exercise and get out in the fresh air?
  • Do you have a place where phones are switched off and stored at night time?
  • Do you have parental controls set up through your Internet Service Provider?
  • Do you encourage your world to have interests, passions and a curiosity for life in the real world? Are you role modelling this behaviour to them?

Are you taking responsibility for your part?

It’s so easy isn’t it to pick up your phone while the kettle is boiling and have a quick scroll through to see what the world is up to. It’s like a knee jerk reaction. An automatic response to having your hands free. Like biting your nails, your thumbs are itching for screen time. It’s a fact, that screens are designed to be highly addictive and I think it’s important to take stock of the fact that it changes our brains. Furthermore, it’s changing our child’s brain which is still developing.

I also think as adults we need to be mindful about our screen habits. Do you take your phone to bed? Do you have your phone at the dinner table? Do you use it in the car to kill time in traffic jams? I think screens can be used as a boundary too. A bit like smoking was back in the day: I’m nipping out for a smoke so I can avoid this difficult social situation or uncomfortable conversation.

What drives your screen usage?

Boredom, the need for space or to disconnect from a busy life? Children often tell me they cannot be still and with themselves. We talked about this in the Energy Pod class of ‘Being Alone’ (download the replay here)

Or are you using screens to stay organised, up to date, informed, or something else? Be honest with yourself and notice what drives your need to be online as often as you are. Are you comparing yourself to other families online and are you feeling good about where you are hanging out online?

How do you know if your child is emotionally mature enough to be online?

Firstly, I would ask you what are your family values and morals that you live your life by? Living in the real world and being clear about who you are. Parents who are grounded and strong in their sense of self means that children will follow your example.

The impact of bullying can produce post traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, low self esteem and suicidal thoughts which if untreated can last into adulthood. Lots of the clients I have coached that have been bullied have been deeply wounded in this way. It’s heartbreaking and so as a parent, you need to be serious about your boundary setting and make your children aware of acceptable and unacceptable online behaviours.

What is the impact on your child?

Even though we don’t know the full impact of social media on our kids’ future selves, we know what is happening right now. There are situations that we need to be aware of. It’s not something you can ignore or think it doesn’t apply to your family. It does. It applies to every single one of us who visits the online world regularly.

Educate yourself and educate your children. Make it a priority to start healthy online habits today.

So many people have said to me: ‘They don’t learn this at school. Where can we find something to help them!’ This is why I created ‘Be Your Own Best Friend’. My popular online course created to grow your child’s self esteem from the inside out. This 6-week course can be done stand alone (with a learning pack for you to work through at home as a family) or with me live in a coaching group. ‘Be Your Own Best Friend’ will teach your child to choose healthy friendships, to assert themselves, to set healthy boundaries (say no) and to listen to their intuition. You can find out more here.

In a world where children’s very vulnerable and stretchy brains are bombarded with messages and a skewed reality, they can learn how to feel comfortable in their own skin and be true to themselves. Even when the peer pressure gets turned up. Feed their brains with something more nurturing.

>>Click on the picture to find out more + take the course today!

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