Founder of YOGADOO, specialist children's yoga and mindfulness teacher - (and former Social Media Director) Lucy Aston responds to today's Children's Commissioners report on the social media 'Cliff edge' our children are facing.
As a yoga teacher who specialises in teaching children, when I talk with the young people in my sessions about what stresses them out, or causes them anxiety, without a doubt one of the main reasons they give is the effects of social media. It is those children aged 11 years plus - many of whom have their own phone, or access to online devices such as iPads or laptops - who feel the most pressure to be connected and to conform to having a certain online presence.
That’s why I am not surprised by today’s news that the Children’s Commissioner for England says many year 7 children feel under pressure to be constantly connected online. Anne Longfield, is calling on parents and teachers to do more to prepare children for the emotional impact of social media as they get older, describing social media as a ‘Cliff Edge’ as they go from Primary to Secondary school.
When I launched YOGADOO almost two years ago, I could see there was already a mental health epidemic brewing amongst our young people. What’s more, as parents – and I talk as an almost 40 year old mum of a nine year old boy, we are in effect – parenting blind. We didn’t grow up with access to the internet, 24-hour rolling broadcast channels, mobile phones, social media and online game consoles. We are supporting and advising our children as best we can, but the rollercoaster of information is escaping away from us, almost as fast as we can keep up.
In my previous life as a PR and Social Media Director in an award-winning ad agency, I was part of the problem. It was my job to create engaging campaigns, it was my job to chase the likes and comments on social media, it was my job to target the right audience for the brand I was working on. And sometimes that audience was children (albeit targeting them indirectly through their parents).
But what do we do? We have created this wonderful world of information, communication and entertainment, seemingly almost without limitation. And now our young people are tip-toeing into its shadows with only us parents, and schools to hold their hand, to guide them and most importantly, keep them safe. What’s more, many of these young people are quick learners, so more often than not, they are ‘ahead’ of us in knowing how the technology works.
Primary schools are teaching about online safety effectively, but the children’s commissioner for England says pupils are not being adequately prepared for the emotional challenges that social media presents as they move to senior school. Commissioner, Anne Longfield, is calling on parents and teachers to do more to prepare children for the emotional impact of social media as they get older. She wants to see the introduction of compulsory digital literacy and online resilience lessons for pupils in year 6 and 7.
Her report, found that, although most social media sites have an official age limit of 13, an estimated 75% of 10-to-12 year olds will have a social media account.
Longfield said parents needed to be more engaged with what their children are doing online.
“Just because a child has learnt the safety messages at primary school does not mean they are prepared for all the challenges that social media will present. It means a bigger role for schools in making sure children are prepared for the emotional demands of social media. And it means social media companies need to take more responsibility. Failing to do so risks leaving a generation of children growing up chasing ‘likes’ to make them feel happy, worried about their appearance and image as a result of the unrealistic lifestyles they follow on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, and increasingly anxious about switching off due to the constant demands of social media.”
The transition that children make from primary to secondary school is one of the biggest periods of change they will face in their young life. But they are ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught of social media which takes on an increasingly important role in their lives, exposing them to significant emotional risk.
As a specialist young people’s yoga teacher, I’ve personally worked with pupils in over 50 schools aged 4-16 across Bath and the surrounding area. YOGADOO also runs events, holiday clubs, after school clubs for teenagers and as patron of Mentoring Plus, I run yoga and mindfulness sessions for some of the young people the charity supports in the Bath and Somerset area. We teach children yoga, mindfulness and crucial relaxation techniques to equip them for life’s challenges. But how could these skills help them combat the affects of the social media and digital revolution?
I actually believe these skills are life changers, potentially life savers.
The amount of access a child has to social media and the online world will depend on the decision of each individual parent, family and child, but here are eight ways, I think practicing yoga and mindfulness might help children and young people to have more resilience in an online world. Maybe an ancient practice such as yoga and mindfulness can help our children to deal with the very modern challenges they face today.
Eight ways, practicing yoga and mindfulness might help children and young people to have more resilience in an online world.
R E L A X : Yoga and mindfulness techniques can help children to relax, deal with stress, feel calmer and regulate their emotions. If they are feeling anxious or under pressure to be connected to friends online, just spending some time practicing yoga or simple breathing techniques can help to feel calmer and more in control of how they feel.
A W A R E N E S S : Yoga can help children and young people to train their mind and body to listen to their bodies, and to have more awareness of their feelings and thoughts. It can also help children to be more aware of their own body image, their uniqueness and individuality as a person, which might help to combat the feelings of needing to conform to some of the images they are faced with online.
W E L L B E I N G : Yoga is not only a great way to exercise and relax, it can also help to improve sleep, and generally encourage a more healthy and balanced lifestyle so it might help youngsters to be more aware of other lifestyle choices for example; how much time they are spending indoors, and how much sugar they are consuming.
C O N C E N T R A T I O N : Practicing yoga regularly can improve focus and concentration, which can increase attention spans, reduce procrastination and help with academic performance. Because of the 24-hour nature of social media and online channels, the constant appetite to be entertained and ‘liked’ can mean that attentions spans are reduced. Allowing the mind to be as clear as possible and focussing simply on breathing (!) for a few moments can, over time, improve focus.
W O R T H W H I L E : Young people can often spend hours at a time on their phones and devices at the detriment of real-life engagement with family and friends, academic work and other hobbies. As children enter secondary school there is often a reduction in the amount of extra-curricular sports and clubs they attend, which may also correlate with the amount of physical activity they do on a weekly basis. Yoga is a non-competitive form of exercise, all you need is a little bit of space and possibly a yoga mat (but blankets would do) and you can do it anywhere and anytime. It can help improve strength and balance as well as all of the mental health benefits.
C E N T R E D: During our yoga practice, we are encouraged to look inwards, to focus on ourselves, on our body and our breath. These can be useful tools for children and young people to remain centred so they may cope with the stress and challenges they experience in their everyday lives. If children and young people close their eyes, or soften their gaze on a nice view for a few moments, this can help them to regain focus and feel grounded.
S E L F - L O V E : By its nature, yoga is a non-competitive practice or form of exercise. It’s also about unapologetically giving yourself some time just to be who you are, to love yourself and not ‘beat yourself up’ over ‘mistakes’ or ‘failings’. The constant pressure to be or look a certain way, to be friends with a certain group of people, to be online when others are, is exhausting. By practicing yoga or mindfulness you are giving yourself some time, just to be you.
K I N D N E S S : Following on from self-love, another fundamental building block of yoga is kindness to others. Having gratitude for those people in your life and the opportunities you have in this very moment. By practicing yoga, it can help children and young people to have appreciation of what is important in their life. Who their ‘real’ friends are and to feel part of a community which is not a virtual world.
Lucy Aston is mum to nine year old Freddie and founder of YOGADOO.