It was while we were watching an episode of Bake Off that it happened. My daughter, 12, kept glancing down at her phone and sighing. She tossed it away on the sofa in frustration only to snatch it up again. While pastry-related banter took place on screen, I watched my daughter unravel in real time.
An argument was brewing between “friends”. Accusations were made, immediate responses demanded. It was attrition by text. I counselled from the sideline, suggesting the phone be put away until after our sacred Bake Off time. It was as if the thing was on fire in her hands; every time she thought she had extinguished it, it flared up again. It consumed her that evening. Drowning in a torrent of messages, she broke down sobbing.
In a flash of white-hot anger, my impulse was to grab the phone and tell the toxic voices to back off, but that would entail social death for my daughter. It’s my job to give her the tools to navigate this, but, like many parents, I’m trying to find my own tools in a landscape that bears no resemblance to the one I encountered as a teenager.
This is something reflected so powerfully in I Am Ruth, directed by Dominic Savage and starring Kate Winslet and her daughter Mia Threapleton. It’s a raw depiction of the pressures of social media on the young, the effect on their mental health and their family. Phones are technological cocaine, and a scene where Freya, played by Threapleton, screams at her mother, “Where’s my phone?” was a vivid reminder of the switch in mood when my husband took our daughter’s phone away in the middle of the day just so she could tidy her room.
The death of Molly Russell and the resulting Online Safety Bill currently going through Parliament, is a stark reminder of the dark side of social media and the need to protect young people. What’s concerning is the way that something seemingly innocuous has the power to turn into a slow, toxic drip from a tap that young people are unable to turn off.
According to a report on media use by Ofcom this year, 33 per cent of children aged five to seven and 60 per cent aged eight to 11 had social media profiles, despite being under the minimum age requirement, with only a third of parents aware that age is 13.
The inability to switch off is something Catherine Hallissey, a chartered psychologist, is seeing more of in her practice. “The vast majority of young people are leaving their phones on all night and have access to them in their rooms, so they never escape this potential to either do harm or be harmed.”
Research by Childwise in 2020 revealed that 57 per cent of children aged five to 16 had phones by their bed. I mention to Hallissey that I’ve noticed from my daughter’s exchanges that there’s a pressure to reply immediately, something that baffles me as an inveterate slow responder.
“There’s this culture of urgency and expectation. Not only do we have all our TV and films on demand, responses from our friends are on demand. I’ve worked with some young people who, if they are going for a lesson, have to tell their friends they will be away for an hour.”
It’s not like I’m new to the parent versus social media game. I also have two older sons. For them, phones are for perfunctory arrangements to meet, sharing silly memes or watching a Netflix series. Fortunately, both have developed a healthy cynicism towards social media. What I wasn’t prepared for, was being catapulted into a crash course into toxicity among young girls online.
My rule was that no one had a phone until they went to secondary school. My daughter’s initiation involved an argument kicking off between a bunch of girls online within weeks of starting. One was told she should have known that school was “full of snakes and bitches”. The Ofcom report revealed that, among those aged eight to 17, 84 per cent said they had been bullied via technology rather than face to face.
“The further we are away from the person, the easier it is to do harm. You’re not witnessing the impact of your actions on another person,” says Hallissey, citing as an example the way that we’ll often both apologise if we physically bump into someone, but will let rip with a stream of insults when driving.
She has found that, when it comes to their children and social media/phone use, parents tend to either allow a free for all or impose extreme restrictions. Neither is effective, she says. “A culture of surveillance implies mistrust,” Hallissey says. Young people are less likely to tell their parents about something that has made them uncomfortable online if they are afraid their phone will be taken away. Conversation is key and part of that is for parents to listen rather than dive in. “When you feel like you’ve listened to enough. Listen for more,” advises Hallissey.
I’m lucky that my daughter is a talker. Evenings may have been lost going over the minutiae of the latest barbed comment but, in a quietly vigilant way, I know they are far from wasted. What I can’t stop thinking about are those ingesting this bile alone in their room.
Hallissey advises that we need to lead by example with phone-free zones in all bedrooms at night, at mealtimes or while watching a movie together. “It’s not about demonising technology. It’s about recognising the benefits while also putting protections in place,” she says.
Helping young people to learn how to check in with themselves is key. For example, are they happy for their message to be screenshotted and passed around? Can they picture the recipient’s face on receiving a message? Gradually give them more independence around tech as they get older, so they learn how to manage their technological wellbeing independently. Equally, expect that they will push back and that as a parent, you will make mistakes. However, to navigate this landscape together, you also need to make time.
My daughter told me I was lucky to grow up without a phone. Seeing this insidious trial by phone among young girls, I agree. I could close the door on my school day and lose myself in Top of the Pops. While boys frequently come in for a bad rap, I’m concerned we are ignoring the harm girls are doing to each other.
How to help girls stay happy online
Advice from chartered psychologist Catherine Hallisey
- No phones in the bedroom at night for both children and adults.
- Set rules and boundaries without lecturing – no phones at mealtimes or when watching a film together. Expect your teen to push back.
- Lead by example. Let your children see how you structure the use of your own technology. You can’t expect them to listen to you if you are distracted by your phone and never fully present.
- Don’t allow a tech free for all. Gradually give them more independence around tech as they get older so that they can manage their technological wellbeing as adults.
- Don’t be overly restrictive either. Children will find a way and might take it to unhealthy extremes once they break free.
- Alert them to the permanence of information online and encourage them to question whether they would say to someone’s face what they have written in a text.
- Make space for relaxed conversations about social media and make an effort to learn about their world. Being a sounding board as a parent can help young people process the emotional impact of a negative message they’ve seen. Listen.