PurpleBeach Experience 2016

Live postcards from the PurpleBeach Experience 2016

By Richard Davies

We are not doing enough to protect young people from the internet and social media says Tanya Byron, in conversation with Annemie Ress

Date Posted: April, 30 2016

Best known for her work as a child therapist on television shows Little Angels and The House of Tiny Horrors, psychologist Tanya Byron lead a 2008 review for the UK Government published as “Safer Children in a Digital World”.

According to Tanya, 50% of all adult mental health problems will show themselves in early teens. This is a time when the brain is very ‘plastic’ due to a huge shift in pre frontal cortex development, as children create their own sense of identity. For this reason, it is an acutely vulnerable age.

The impact of social media is that young people feel the need to conform 24/7. There is a constant need to ‘curate’ your own image, for example, the anxiety caused by being ‘tagged’ in a photo – “do I look attractive?” – and the insatiable need for approval measured in friends, followers and ‘likes’.

At a time when children are learning to be individuals, they are subject to intense pressures of ‘herd acceptance’ and perverse norms around what it means to be acceptable. Whereas in the past, young women may have aspired to be a size 6 or 8, today it is about size ‘00’. As a result, young people’s locus of control is increasingly external, as in “when I weigh this, I will be happy and fulfilled.” 

For people who self harm or suffer from eating disorders, the internet provides an inexhaustible ‘how to’ guide. Tanya gave the example of a ‘Thinspiration’ website that advised young people to eat a red pepper before bingeing, so that when you vomit up the red skin of the pepper, you will know that you have completely purged your insides.

For a long time, we have known that children who suffer from neglect will struggle with mental health issues. But the current trend is that children from aspirational middle class families are breaking down in large numbers. It is a problem of resilience – children no longer find it so easy to ‘bend and bounce back’.

Tanya thinks that this lack of resilience derives from the fact that children no longer play outside unsupervised, due to their parents’ fears of ‘stranger danger’ and traffic on our roads. Research shows that since the 1970s, childrens’ ‘radius of play’ has reduced by 85%.  If we ‘raise children in captivity’, we are preventing them from taking risks that will enable them to learn resilience.  A further problem is that today’s generation of parents, in their desire to ‘befriend’ their children, have lost the art of saying ‘no’ which means that children .

Tanya pointed out the irony of parents not allowing children play outside in a world that we do understand, whilst giving them smartphones and laptops to explore an online world that we do not understand. It seems we are not doing enough to protect children from the real dangers that they encounter. 

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