Picture a world where your own sense of popularity depends on an emoji and the touch of a screen can dictate your mood.
Imagine changing your behaviour to fit a carefully crafted online persona - all before hitting your teens.
Far fetched? Not according to a recent report into social media use among eight to 12-year-olds.
The Children’s Commissioner report, Life in ‘Likes’, has unveiled the impact of social media use on the lives of children before they become teenagers, particularly in relation to their well-being and self-esteem.
It’s a sobering read for any parent who may have hoped this age group was immune from the relentless march of social media.
Most social media platforms have a minimum age limit of 13, says the report, but research shows a growing number of children below that age are using social media. Three in four children aged 10 to 12 have their own accounts.
While eight to 10-year-olds use social media in a playful, creative way, this changes significantly as children’s social circles widen in Year 7.
The report reveals many children are approaching a ‘cliff edge’ as they transition from primary to secondary school, with social media becoming much more important in their lives but bringing additional anxiety.
“While social media clearly provides some great benefits to children, it is also exposing them to significant risks emotionally, particularly as they approach Year 7,” said Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England.
“I am worried that many children are starting secondary school ill-equipped to cope with the sudden demands of social media as their world expands.”
The report shows many Year 7 children are finding social media hard to manage and are becoming dependent on ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ for social validation. Some are even using techniques to guarantee securing a high number of ‘likes’.
Airbrushed lives are no longer the preserve of celebrities, with the study finding that youngsters adapt their offline behaviour to fit an online image.
It said that children started to view offline activities through a ‘shareable lens’ based on what would look best on social media. And it found that children are conscious of keeping up appearances on social media, particularly when they start secondary school. Many of those who begin to follow celebrities and others outside close family and friends, become aware of how they look compared to others on social media and feel comparisons are unattainable.
The study found social media was important for maintaining relationships but this got harder to manage at secondary school. Across all years (ages eight to 12), it said that children were constantly contactable and connected, and being ‘offline’ or not being contactable was in some cases considered socially damaging. Some children talked about feeling social pressure as a result.
By secondary school “this pressure sometimes became impossible to ignore” and for some was a distraction from offline activities.
It is not just their peers youngsters have to worry about; the study found many children were bothered by ‘sharenting’, parents posting pictures of them on social media, but felt they could do little to stop it.
Ms Longfield called on schools and parents to prepare children for this change towards the end of primary school.
“I want to see children living healthy digital lives,” she said. “That means parents engaging more with what their children are doing online. Just because a child has learnt the safety messages at primary school does not mean they are prepared for all the challenges that social media will present.
“It means a bigger role for schools in making sure children are prepared for the emotional demands of social media.
“And it means social media companies need to take more responsibility.
“Failing to do so risks leaving a generation of children growing up chasing ‘likes’ to make them feel happy, worried about their appearance and image as a result of the unrealistic lifestyles they follow on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, and increasingly anxious about switching off due to the constant demands of social media.”
So what can parents do to help their children navigate the digital transition between primary and secondary school? Carolyn Bunting, CEO of online child safety not-for-profit organisation, Internet Matters, said parents should have early conversations about their child’s digital life.
She added: “It’s important to talk to them about social pressure, their own behaviour online as well as the behaviour of others, and reassure them that they can talk to you about issues they encounter on social media. Connecting with friends on social media and online is a positive and empowering thing for a child, but they should feel comfortable talking to their parents, teachers or other trusted adult when that online chat crosses the line and becomes cruel or abusive.”