More than 1.6 million social media accounts owned by children are falsely registered with an adult age, according to new stats from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
Through these accounts – on sites including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitch, Twitter and YouTube, which typically allow accounts from age 13 (except for Snapchat, which allows from age 11) – children were exposed to almost two-thirds more age-restricted ads than under 17s who set up their profiles with their actual age.
Meanwhile, the Government has announced changes to the Online Safety Bill to tackle the “absurd situation” around the enforcement of age limits on social media, Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan has said.
Updates to the bill will require tech firms to show how they enforce user age limits, publish summaries of risk assessments in regard to potential harm to children, and declare details of enforcement action taken against tech companies.
According to experts, inappropriate advertising isn’t the only problem that can result from kids accessing social media at a young age.
“The internet is, by and large, a great resource, and it can really create a connection for young people and a sense of community,” says Kemi Omijeh (kemiomijeh.com), a BACP therapist specialising in child and adolescent therapy.
“However, when young people are struggling with their mental health or their wellbeing, it can heighten or exacerbate things.”
So how can parents ensure children are protected online, whatever their age? We asked experts for their advice.
What are some of the dangers of social media use for children?
The nature of social media means your child could come into contact with strangers, even if they think they’re talking to friends.
“Impersonation, that’s a big thing on social media,” says Muhammad Yahya Patel, security engineer at Check Point Software (checkpoint.com). “You really don’t know who the other person is on the other side.”
While parents may be familiar with the likes of Facebook and Instagram, new platforms are popping up all the time, he says. “Discord, for example, is used by kids to chat when they’re playing online games. The same chat tools can be used by people who have got other interests online as well.”
Young people might seek support online for mental health issues such as low self-esteem, depression or anxiety, but “they’re not necessarily doing that in a safe and manageable way”, Omijeh notes.
“There’s actually a lot of pop psychology on social media… But for more complex cases like eating disorders, self-harm and things of that nature, you need to be supported by qualified, experienced professionals.”
And it’s easy for kids to get sucked into the ‘compare and despair’ spiral, when faced with the seemingly perfect lives of celebrities and influencers.
“Social media really is just a snapshot or highlight reel,” Omijeh says. “A lot of young people take it too seriously… It becomes a main feature of their life and informs their choices.”
Children’s maturity can vary at different ages – should you always follow the social media age limits exactly?
Omijeh suggests the current age limits are sensible, and the biggest problem is children going on social media sites too young – which is where parental guidance comes in.
“Parents should exercise their right to be a parent,” she says. “It’s about assessing your child’s resilience and capacity to expose themselves to the internet.”
Even then, it’s best not to simply allow free rein to apps and websites when they reach the age limit, she adds: “It’s not something that you should give them access to without guidance.”
What are some signs social media is having a negative impact on a child?
If your child is spending an increasing amount of time holed up in their room scrolling on their devices, it could be a bad sign.
“The longer they’re on it, the more I would be concerned,” says Omijeh. “This will be relative to your to your child and circumstances.”
For teens, look out for mood changes. “The average teenager does go through a range of emotions in one day, or even one hour sometimes,” she says, so it’s about noticing “an inability to regulate their emotions or [being] quite withdrawn – anything that’s out of character for your child”.
Pay attention to any unusual questions related to social media safety as well: “Often young people will ask questions, maybe on behalf of a ‘friend’, but that friend might actually be them.”
What can parents do to protect their children?
Knowledge is power when it comes to making sure children are safe on social media.
“We say in the cybersecurity world: ‘How can you protect something you can’t see?'” says Patel. “Parents should be educating themselves on these different online platforms.”
He recommends the National Cyber Security Centre (ncsc.gov.uk) as a great resource for parents and kids: “They’ve got some great one-pagers and funky PDF documents that make it really easy to understand the world we’re living in now and how parents can actually work with their children.”
Limiting screen time might help to minimise the impact social media can have on mental health, with Omijeh saying: “It might be [allowing] an hour after dinner, it might be an hour after school or on the weekend. Agree those fixed times and don’t deviate from them.”
Most importantly, encourage your children to talk openly about their concerns instead of just imposing rules.
Omijeh explains: “They’ll remember ‘My parents talked to me about the good, the bad and the ugly of the internet, so if something does go wrong I can talk to my mum or dad about this’.”