Social media is harming children - should brands intervene?

20 Aug 2018  |  Michaela Jefferson 
Social media is harming children - should brands intervene?

Social media is causing mental health problems in children and young people - but given advertisers fund the platforms, should they take a stance? Michaela Jefferson investigates

It's safe to say that, as a nation, we're addicted to our smart phones. According to Ofcom, Brits on average check their phones every 12 minutes of the waking day, and 40% of adults look at their phone within five minutes of waking up.

With much of that time spent on social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, we are being bombarded with a constant stream of information.

However, research is increasingly revealing the damaging effects of phone addiction and social media on our health and well-being, particularly that of children. With the online world invading even the most private of moments, children now face higher rates of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

As if that's not bad enough, leading neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield told The Daily Telegraph that social media is going to leave today's youth with the behavioural habits of three-year-olds: emotional and risk-taking, with poor social skills, weak self-identity and short attention spans.

Pressure has therefore been mounting against platforms such as Facebook to take action; earlier this month, fifty US psychologists penned an open letter to the American Psychological Association, denouncing the "unethical practice" of using manipulation techniques to hook children on social media.

Source: NSPCC and Ofcom (2017)

Thus far, Facebook and Instagram have responded to concerns by releasing new features designed to aid "digital wellness", allowing users for the first time to see how long they've been scrolling and set time limits.

However, given that these platforms are funded by advertisers, do brands have a share of responsibility to help children navigate the pitfalls of social media?

According to Lisa Morgan, managing director at family focused media agency Generation Media, the growing popularity of the shop/buy format within social platforms, with which advertisers offer a full retail experience, has fuelled the amount of time consumers are spending scrolling.

"Children learn from their parents, so if parents are frequently on their mobiles whilst in the presence of their children, this becomes normal behaviour which they are likely to adopt."

However, we should be "sceptical" on whether it is the responsibility of a brand to remind parents to put their phone down, Morgan says, arguing instead for an educational process with parents and children to help them strike the right balance.

"Once adults begin to change their attitudes towards digital devices, then this will decrease the exposure to children."

In 2015, the Advertising Association relaunched Media Smart, the industry's corporate social responsibility programme that educates young people on media and advertising literacy by creating free educational resources for use in the classroom or at home. It covers subjects like social media, digital advertising and body image.

Brands supporting Media Smart thus far include L'Oréal, Mattel, Lego and McDonalds, plus platforms including Google, Facebook and ITV.

Rachel Barber-Mack, the organisation's director, says the advertisers supporting the company "absolutely buy into this mission", and see it as a key responsibility to improve digital literacy and resilience.

The non-profit organisation recently joined together with children's magazine First News to run a campaign supported by the NSPCC and Childline - 'Boys' Biggest Conversation' - to encourage young men across the UK to talk about body image and the effect it has on their well-being, online and offline.

"Children might be digital natives, but they need our help to be emotionally resilient and to understand the commercial and technological world they are growing up in," says Barber-Mack.

"As a responsible industry, advertisers must be at the forefront of these changes and lead the campaign to champion media literacy."

Barber-Mack also says that the brands supporting Media Smart do so out of moral responsibility and not for personal gain.

However, in a column earlier this year, Mediatel columnist and futurist Tracey Follows argued that the current societal push towards wellness, both physically and digitally, offers an opportunity for brands to produce truly disruptive advertising.

Follows argued that, if advertisers set out to make every interaction they have with the customer one that makes them feel less stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, "not only would no-one want or need an ad-blocker, media would be in tune with the biggest trend of the next twenty, maybe fifty, years - health and well-being."

"It just takes a different mindset. A healthier mindset. A mindset that envisions media to be a contributing factor to a person's health and well-being. Something for which people in the future will be willing to pay more," she said.

On the other hand, digital partner at global consultancy MediaSense, Ryan Kangisser, argues that we need to be "realistic" in our expectations of brands and what they are truly able to effect.

"We've already seen with the rise of purposeful marketing two to three years ago some great case studies, but for the vast majority there is a challenge around authenticity with consumers wise to those brands who try to force these issues (and there are plenty of those at that)."

Admittedly, there have been a number of high profile instances in which brands have attempted purposeful marketing and misfired hugely, not least Pepsico's appropriation of the Black Lives Matter movement last year and McDonald's exploitation of bereavement to sell more Filet O' Fish.

Kangisser advises brands to avoid the "tactical route", and to instead join together via the respective trade bodies and work directly with the social networks and manufacturers to develop stronger principles and guidelines for digital wellness.

Nevertheless, Genevieve Tompkins, managing partner at indy media agency MC&C, says the connected world children are growing up in means a brand's influence is greater than ever.

"This brings not only a responsibility, but also an opportunity to inspire positive behaviours and should be central to the strategic planning of any youth-targeted brand," she says.

"There is so much to be gained in the long term for brands to create campaigns that consider their impact on mental health.

"It needs a little more thought and effort of course, but will ultimately pay dividends for all."

@mejefferson_

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