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Online safety: 3 ways to help young people navigate selfies, statuses and likes


Helen Cutteridge reflects on why social media tools like Instagram and Snapchat are harming young people's mental health, and why Youtube is different.


A year ago, I went to a concert with a friend. She took a selfie (well quite a few selfies) of us, searched until she found the one in which she looked the best, added filters and the like, and put it on Instagram. The whole process took about 25 minutes. Lovely, proof of our evening out. Except that later on in the evening my (then soon to be) husband asked who else was with us. He didn’t recognise me in the photo.

At the beginning of this year I shared a photo of some art work done by a 12 year-old Syrian refugee depicting what it was like to leave their home. It got 7 likes. The following week I posted a picture of my husband and I. It got 52 likes.

What is the point of these stories? A study was released recently which surveyed 1,479 young people about how different apps and platforms impacted their emotional and mental wellbeing. The findings revealed that young people voted Instagram and Snapchat as the worst social media platforms for their mental health, whereas YouTube was one of the best. I think these stories have a lot to say about these findings. They indicate what our engagement with social media, and the culture of self-objectification in which we live, has produced. The culture that Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook have perpetuated.

YouTube is a place of positive involvement with people. It’s a dialogue. You spend 10-15 minutes engaging with someone’s views on body positivity, mental health, or identity. YouTubers look and sound like us and they engage with everyday issues, often doing it to help others.

Instagram and Snapchat are different. They are used for sharing photos of our world, experiences and life, in perfectly edited and filtered pictures. They are also the two apps that the young people I know are engaging with the most.

Selfies and self-worth

Imagine waking up and looking at your phone. You’re still in your PJs, with bad breath and bed hair. If you’re anything like me you’ve got yesterday’s make-up on and you’ve looked better. You scroll through your Instagram feed and are confronted with a photo which took someone 25 minutes to get right.

As adults our rational thinking is fully developed. We know that what we are seeing isn’t real. We know that 90% of the time life doesn’t look like that. For the children and teenagers we work with, whose rational brains are still developing, it may not be quite so simple.

So when they see that photo of their friend, who they should be able to look like, they feel bad and compare themselves to something which is unattainable. Imagine what that does to your self-esteem. And then imagine how you feel when you post something important to you that only gets 7 likes but when you post a picture of you and your bae it gets 52 likes. What does that say about the things other people value in you? Wouldn’t that impact your self-worth, constantly comparing yourself, constantly seeing yourself through the lens of what other people think of you and how you portray your life?

But it doesn’t stop there. On the 26th April the NSPCC and O2 published the results of a study on internet usage and online safety. Asking 1,696 young people about the sites they were using, four out of five young people said that they don’t feel safe online. The sites they felt were most dangerous were Facebook, ASKfm, Omegle and IMVU. But despite This 80% saying they don’t feel safe, 87% said they felt they knew how to keep themselves safe online. Those numbers don’t seem to add up.

I guess the thing to consider is the dangers our young people are facing online. The first one is one we are all aware of. The danger of online bullying and exploitation.

Young people are aware that grooming happens online, and they can tell when someone is bullying them. Platforms such as ASKfm and IMVU enable this to happen, as they allow for anonymity more than other sites. But you can report this, you can talk to people and there is a problem here.

The bigger danger are the ones that we don’t see the impact of. The sites that are bad for our mental health in subtle ways, not revealing how damaging they may be for you until it’s almost too late. The sites that are socially acceptable and you can’t report someone for not liking you on it.

So what do we do about these things?

1. Get to know the sites that young people use

Do you know anything about IMVU, and the chat functions, or do you stick to the sites you know and enjoy? Young people are engaging with things we don’t even know about yet, normally until it is too late. So we need to be proactive and find out what they are using.

2. Get to know how they use them

Who are your young people talking to through their X-Box headset? What are the photos they are putting out into the world, and how much pressure do they feel to find the right filter? Are they watching body positive YouTube channels or are they following insta stars for “thinspiration”?

3. Model good internet usage to them

What are our profile pictures? And what do they say about us? Is it a photo of us speaking at an event on stage, or a photo of us dolled up and unrecognisably filtered? Or do we have photos of us laughing with a slight double chin looking like a human being? Which things do we post about? Do we present reality or everything perfectly? With our internet usage, we also need to consider how often we are online. How often does your phone buzz with a new twitter notification? When do you put your phone down at home to spend time with your partner/kids/cat, and do you check your phone as soon as you’ve woken up? Our young people are trying to figure out how to stay healthy and safe online, and that starts with us.

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