Viewpoint: The relationship between young people’s use of social media and their well-being

The Education Policy Institute [EPI] has recently been analysing the evidence on how young people’s use of social media sites, such as Instagram and Snapchat, affect their well-being, writes Emily Frith, Director of  Mental Health and Prisoner Education at EPI.

We found, from international benchmarking data in the OECD’s PISA Wellbeing study that nearly a third of children in the UK now go online at the age of six years or younger, and that this is younger than other countries and getting younger. The report also found that 95 per cent of UK 15 year olds are on social media before or after school. Over a third (37.3 per cent) of UK 15 year olds are ‘extreme internet users’ (defined by the OECD as a student who uses the internet for more than six hours outside of school on a typical weekend day). This is substantially higher than the OECD average.

So what impact is social media use having on young people’s well-being and mental health? We found that there are many positive aspects of moderate social media use, such as pupils collaborating on homework projects or when revising for exams. Young people with mental health problems can find support online and connect with their peers who are going through the same experiences. More widely, research has shown that social media enables young people to build social connections and get involved in community engagement projects through social media.

On the other hand, there was clear evidence of an association between excessive use of social media and low levels of well-being and mental health problems. According to the Office of National Statistics, while 12 per cent of children who spend no time on social networking websites on a normal school day have symptoms of mental ill health, that figure rises to 27 per cent for those who are on the sites for three or more hours a day. While this is evidence of a link between excessive use and mental ill health, it does not prove that social media use is causing these problems. It could equally be the case that young people with conditions like depression are more likely to go on social media than other young people. It may also be that other factors (such as social deprivation) are linked to both mental health problems and excessive social media use.

In our research we identified several risks that young people can encounter online. These include:

  • cyber-bullying
  • sharing too much personal information
  • accessing harmful information, such as advice on how to self-harm
  • negative impacts on body image due to comparison with manipulated online images of others
  • spending too much time online to the detriment of school-work, sleep or offline family and social relationships.

Responses to these risks vary. Young people will use approaches such as blocking connections on social media or taking breaks from the internet. Perhaps surprisingly, one study (PDF document) found that only one in five children would talk to someone about something that had upset them online.

Parents adopt different approaches to managing their children’s internet use, from restrictions (including time limits or banning certain sites); monitoring their child’s activity; or talking to their children about some of the risks involved with the internet and teaching them appropriate digital skills. Restricting a child’s use of the internet can reduce the chances of them experiencing online risks, but it will not necessarily reduce harm experienced by those who then do encounter one of these risks. Such restriction has also been linked in research to the young person having a lower level of digital skills. The evidence indicates that restricting a young person’s access to the internet could actually inhibit the development of the skills needed to handle online risk. This includes digital skills (like knowing how to block someone) and emotional skills (including developing resilience to critical comments seen online).

The rapid pace of technological change provides another challenge for policy-makers seeking to protect young people from online risk, as new apps develop and the advent of smart-phones and instant messaging increases the privacy of young people’s online interactions. Our report concludes that the most effective approach for government is to support teachers and parents to help young people develop the skills and resilience they need to live safe digital lives.

Read the full EPI report: Social Media and Children’s Mental Health: a review of the evidence

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