Is this the time for a serious conversation about social media- Amira Sajwani

Is this the time for a serious conversation about social media?

When future historians attempt to identify the spark that ignited our modern era, it seems likely that the advent of the internet will feature among their prime suspects.

If predictions proves accurate, I believe social media – or web 2.0 – will be looked back upon as the fuel that enabled its proliferation.

By introducing the ability to interact without the need for technical knowhow, the social web has transformed the way in which we communicate and disseminate information, enabling user participation across a vast global network.

I do not believe social media to be bad. As is the case for any tool, the benefit or harm it does depends entirely on how it is used. Consequently, owing to its widespread – almost ubiquitous – adoption, social media has precipitated a raft of societal changes: some good, others not so good.

Accentuating the positives

Let’s begin by exploring the benefits, of which there are many.

Social media has enabled individuals from disparate communities across the world to connect and forge meaningful relationships. It has also allowed families living apart to keep in touch and share photos and videos at the click of a button (or the touch of a screen).

These platforms have facilitated countless worthwhile causes, giving voices to those that might otherwise have failed to gain traction among the global community.

Similarly, they have proven invaluable when it comes to facilitating access to education, especially during the global pandemic.

And of course, social media has offered an unprecedented and unparalleled ecosystem for creativity and self-expression.

When one considers the extent to which web 2.0 has transformed the way we communicate, it’s difficult not to be awe-struck by the good that social media has done – and can do.

Assessing the risks

At the same time, we must acknowledge the dangers that the social web has introduced to society, especially for younger generations.

People my age and younger are the first to have grown up against the backdrop of the internet and social media.

While these tools have provided us with incredible opportunities to learn, create and connect, I often wonder whether we fully grasp the impact that they are having on our mental wellbeing.

The risks are particularly pronounced for today’s teenagers – and children even younger – who have never known a world without social media. But what exactly are the risks?

According to, the primary dangers stem from exposure to inappropriate content, the inappropriate behaviour of other users, a tendency to overshare, and the ability to make friends with people we don’t know.

I appreciate it’s neither possible nor desirable to supervise kids 24/7, but the potential risks posed by unfettered access to social media are significant.

In a bid to find out more about the damage that these platforms can cause, British children’s charity Barnado’s conducted a survey of 80 of its practitioners across 30 services.

Half of respondents said they’d worked with children aged five to 10 who had been exposed to unsuitable or harmful materials online, while more than a third had experience of individuals in this age group who had been victims of cyber bullying.

A staggering 79% of practitioners said children they had worked with aged 11 to 15 had experienced cyber bullying, some instances of which had led to self-harm and even suicide.

Similarly worrying is the fact that 78% reported having worked with children in this age group who had been groomed online.

Fortunately, the potential harm caused by social media is being taken seriously by policymakers at the highest levels.

Speaking in his State of the Union Address in March, US President Joe Biden said: “[We] must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit… It’s time to strengthen privacy protections; ban targeted advertising to children; [and] demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”

How young is too young?

The more research I’ve read, the more I’ve become convinced that we need to give serious consideration to implementing higher, universally applicable age restrictions for social media platforms.

As points out, “most of the popular social media services require users to be at least 13 years of age before they can register, although some sites are created especially for children under 13”. The challenge, in my opinion, is that these age restrictions exist mainly for reasons of data protection.

Online services are not permitted to collect or store children’s personal information if they are younger than 13, but the same laws stipulate that children aged 13 and over can sign up to online services without parental permission.

Although important, this focus on data protection is missing the bigger picture because it fails to account for the social interactions our children have during their formative years. Our experiences during adolescence can have serious repercussions on our adult lives. To address the question of our children’s safety through the lens of data protection alone is far too limiting.

I fully appreciate that young people need to socialise, and I accept that the way in which they do this will evolve over time in conjunction with technology. This was the case before the internet, before telephones and, in all likelihood, before the advent of the postal service.

I also understand that panicked, kneejerk reactions to change are rarely helpful, and I don’t wish to fall into this trap. Even so, if the available evidence shows that social media is proving detrimental to young people’s mental health, don’t we have a responsibility to act?

Perhaps the main problem is that we do not yet have enough evidence. Barnado’s points out that more research on the impact of social media will be essential in helping to establish an evidence base, and that this research must include the experience of vulnerable children and young people. The charity notes that education, mental health and internet regulation will also prove crucial in creating a safe online environment for all.

In the meantime, I believe that we need to seriously consider whether it is a good idea to allow 13-year-olds to access these platforms without parental permission. I would even go so far as to argue that leaving this decision to parents is insufficient, because it risks some children becoming ostracised from their peer groups. Whatever is decided needs to be applied universally.

And for those who worry that this will negatively impact social skills, I would point out that young people have always succeeded in forming friendships – and they always will. To suggest that this will be compromised by restricting access to social media would be to underestimate their innate ability to communicate.

Ultimately, children make friends despite technology, not because of it.