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‘Me, my selfie and I’: An exploration of children’s perceptions of social media – a PhD pilot study

Claire Pescott, University of South Wales

Numbers of users of social media has increased dramatically in recent years with children and young people recognised as heavy adopters of this virtual social network (Richards, Caldwell, & Go, 2015). Terms of service for the major social media platforms stipulates that the recommended age for joining sites is 13 years old (Children’s Commissioner, 2018). However, according to recent research, use of social media is significant for tweens (8–12 years of age) yet there is little research with this younger age group (Ofcom, 2017). The final years of primary school are a pivotal time for identity formation, the development of social networks independent from parents, and ideally mutually supportive formation of relationships to navigate the social world (Pea, Nass, Mehula, Rance, & Aman, 2012). There is an emphasis on the need to become responsible digital citizens within a changing landscape of communication and socialisation. Practitioners and parents are not ‘digital natives’ (Prensky, 2001) and consequently do not necessarily know the implications of social media use and how it can affect children’s emotional wellbeing.

This pilot study took place in four primary schools in the south Wales area with settings selected to provide a varied socioeconomic demographic range (N = 40, aged 10–11 years old, two groups of five in each setting). The focus groups were structured using a set of activities that the participants took part in, and questions in relation to these stimulated rich discussion. In this research, it appears that many parents and practitioners have successfully ingrained messages into children regarding e-safety from known risks such as predators and strangers. Children in the focus groups demonstrated a sense of agency and indicated that they use various strategies to protect themselves online such as ‘ghost mode’ to hide their location on some apps, nicknames rather than their real names on profiles, and only being friends with people they know.

The most prevalent finding from this data was the potential emotional repercussions of engaging with social media platforms, this was particularly apparent in the discussions around Snapchat filters (digital overlays placed over photographs). There were two distinct reasons for using these filters, which had a clear gender divide: the boys discussed using animal filters, adding moveable ears, exaggerating features and making themselves look silly for entertainment purposes, whereas the majority of girls explained they used them to alter and enhance their appearance. Girls in this study discussed that comparing themselves with filtered photographs changed how they felt about themselves and manipulated their mood. In more generic media research, Tatangelo and Ricciardelli (2017) echo these findings and highlight a similar gender divide, with many girls in their sample being concerned with physical appearance, whereas the majority of boys with sports and ability. These findings are also concurrent with research on older teenage girls where some appearance concerns were endorsed and physical comparisons evident (Burnette, Kwitowski, & Mazzeo, 2018). However, in this study, girls displayed higher levels of resilience and coping strategies. It is apparent that physical comparison which social media affords is a significant risk to children as they may not always be aware that images are filtered and manipulated, which could be perpetuating negative body image (Chae, 2016). Emotional safety in relation to social media needs to be taught more explicitly in primary schools.


References

Burnette, C., Kwitowski, M., & Mazzeo, S. (2017). ‘I don’t need people to tell me I’m pretty on social media:’ A qualitative study of social media and body image in early adolescent girls. Body Image, 23, 114–125.

Chae, J. (2017). Virtual makeover: Selfie-taking and social media use increase selfie-editing frequency through social comparison’. Computers in Human Behavior, 66, 370–376.

Children’s Commissioner. (2018). Life in likes: Children’s Commissioner report into social media use among 8–12 year olds. Retrieved from https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Childrens-Commissioner-for-England-Life-in-Likes-3.pdf

National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children [NSPCC]. (2018). Online abuse facts and statistics. Retrieved from https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/online-abuse/facts-statistics.

Office of Communications [Ofcom] (2017, November 29). Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report [web page]. London. Retrieved from https://www.ofcom.org.uk/research-and-data/media-literacy-research/childrens/children-parents-2017

Pea, R., Nass, C., Mehula, L., Rance, M., & Aman, K. (2012). Media use, face-to-face communication, media multitasking, and social well-being among 8- to 12-year-old girls. Developmental Psychology, 48(2), 327–336.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. University Press, 9(5), 1–6.

Richards, D., Caldwell, P., & Go, H. (2015). Impact of social media on the health of children and young people. Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health, 51(12), 1152–1157.

Tatangelo, G., & Ricciardelli, L. (2017). Children’s body image and social comparisons with peers and the media. Journal of Health Psychology, 22(6), 776–787.