Extreme use of internet detrimental to young people’s mental wellbeing

While using social media has many benefits, report finds correlation between extreme use and young people experiencing mental health problems

Published on 11th July 2017

Social media can have a negative effect on the mental wellbeing of young people who are ‘extreme internet users,’ a report has warned

A new report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has examined the impact of using social media on young people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. 

There is evidence of a beneficial impact of social media on young people’s emotional wellbeing. However, the report highlights several risks linked with social media use – including cyber-bullying, concerns about excessive internet use, sharing of private information and harmful content – such as websites that promote self-harm.

“This report points to the need for a greater understanding of how to build resilience in young people as they navigate this relatively unchartered territory. Government policy should therefore focus on what can be done at a national level to invest in further research and to support the industry, families and schools to build this resilience in young people,” said Rt Hon. David Laws, Executive Chairman, Education Policy Institute.

Restricting usage of the internet can be counterproductive

The report Social media and children’s mental health: a review of the evidence found that social media can be beneficial to young people’s emotional wellbeing. This is because young people can connect with others to improve their social skills online, develop their character and resilience, and collaborate on school projects.

Importantly, those with mental health problems are also able to seek support on the internet, either through social media networks or through the online provision of advice and counselling support. For example, 78 per cent of young people contacting the organisation Childline now do so online.

The report also found that equipping young people with sufficient digital skills to help them navigate the internet and new technologies safely is vital. Therefore, while restricting a child’s use of the internet has been shown to reduce the chances of them experiencing online risks, this can be counterproductive as it prevents young people from developing the skills and resilience needed to handle such risks.

However, the EPI also found:

  • Over a third (37.3 per cent) of UK 15 year olds can be classed as ‘extreme internet users’ (6+ hours of use a day) – markedly higher than the average of OECD countries. Young people in the UK are also extensive users of social media sites – 94.8 per cent of 15 year olds in the UK used social media before or after school – slightly above the OECD average.
  • The evidence points towards a correlation between extreme use of social media and harmful effects on young people’s wellbeing. Those classed as ‘extreme internet users’ were more likely to report being bullied (17.8 per cent) than moderate internet users (6.7 per cent).
  • Further evidence points to a link between periods spent on social media and a rise in mental health problems.
  • Technology is evolving rapidly. The increasingly private nature of online activity, with instant messaging and smartphones, means that attempts to isolate young people from all online risks are likely to be ineffective.
  • Policy-makers have struggled to keep pace with technological change. Successive governments, while having offered guidance and resources, made changes to the curriculum, and implemented strategies to promote safety, are often unable to keep abreast with the fast changing nature of online risk – meaning responses to protect, and build resilience in, young people are inadequate and often outdated.

More research is needed to understand the causal relationship between social networking and mental health and wellbeing problems, the report concludes.

With the Prime Minister naming mental health as a key priority, the report calls upon the government to explore the development of resilience in young people, rather than focusing just on safeguarding – in order to support their mental health and emotional wellbeing, and their safe participation in increasingly complex digital environments.

Social media opens up risks

Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, said: “Social media is not going away and the way young people use it is changing all the time. It can be a great way to communicate but it also opens up different risks to young people.

“This report concludes that industry, schools and families must all rise to the challenge and we agree. What will jump out to parents is the link between excessive social media use and a greater chance of mental health issues.

“Looking at ways to make children resilient, we need industry to behave responsibly, but we also must empower parents about the best ways to safeguard and support their children online. Developing new ways to develop resilience in young people will increase the odds that young people make safe choices. Schools can take this on - given the right policy framework, a flexible curriculum and access to evidence about what makes a difference,” Courtney added.

Space in the curriculum for this is essential

Russell Hobby, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT says: “This report clearly shows the challenges that policy-makers, school leaders and parents face in ensuring the online space is safe for children to use. With internet usage above the OECD average, children in the UK face more of the challenges that using social media can bring.   

“It is important that schools can provide students with safe access to the internet for learning.  The benefits of easy access for pupils are clear – but so are the dangers.  The responsibilities on teachers and schools leaders in this area are huge, and it is a duty schools take very seriously. To secure this, we have consistently called for greater training and support for teachers to be able to keep pace with technological change.

 “We look forward to seeing the government’s Internet Safety Strategy this summer. This must be clear that responsibilities are wide, with much social media use happening beyond the school gates. This must include giving teachers the tools they need, and reiterate the government’s commitment to statutory PSHE. One of the best forms of safeguarding is to set aside time to talk to children about the potential dangers of the internet, and to teach them how to stay safe online outside of school. Space in the curriculum for this is essential now more than ever,” he concluded.

Social media and children’s mental health: a review of the evidence



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