Is social media harming UK children and teens?

Is social media harming UK children and teens?

As parents, we all want to protect our children and give them the tools they need, as they grow up, to be able to make their own informed choices and navigate through life independently. Social media and the online connected world can provide an extra layer of challenge that we didn’t have to deal with so much in our youth. It can be difficult for us as parents to know how much we should be supervising or controlling our children’s access to these platforms. We’ve all seen the headlines about how social media is responsible for facilitating online bullying and increasing mental health problems for teens. It may also be exposing our children to worrying things that they probably wouldn’t otherwise encounter at their age. How much of this is sensationalism and how much is fact? This blog post looks at some of the studies, stats and research available in this area, with the aim of providing a factual and balanced view so that parents can make up their own minds about what is right for their individual child when it comes to social media.

Social media use in children and teens

Ofcom's 2019 report is the most recent national report into children’s’ online and viewing habits, with results released in February 2020. It looked at children between the ages of 3-15 years and found that around 50% of 10-year olds have their own smartphone. The same report also found that 21% of children aged 8-11 years have at least one social media profile, despite most of the major platforms having a minimum age requirement of 13 years (and some, like WhatsApp, being 16 years) to create an account. The number of young people aged between 12-15 years who use social media remains at around 71%, which has been fairly steady over the last few years according to Ofcom data. The average teenager spends between one and three hours on social media every day, with girls tending to be higher users than boys. Use of Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram has grown for this age group in the last year, whilst Facebook use has declined.
This report also looked at parental concerns about their children and the online content they may come into contact with, showing that 45% of parents (of 5-15-year olds) are worried that their children might see content that encourages them to harm themselves. A third of parents were also concerned about their child being radicalised online. Nine out of the ten parents surveyed said that they applied some rules to their children’s online activity or supervised them when online (especially with younger children) and most parents also talked to their children about online safety. Less than half of the parents whose children use a smartphone or tablet were aware of how to use parental settings on these devices.

The potential impact of social media on young people’s health

2018 UK government enquiryinto the impact of social media on the health of children and young people indicates that there is some correlation between an increase in the amount of time that people aged 0-15 years are spending on social media on average, and the number of children and young people reporting a mental health issue. The research also looked at the benefits of social media for the young people they spoke to, including:

  • A vital way to connect with friends and family across long and short distances
  • A way to foster and sustain relationships and friendships
  • Helping them to bond and feel less lonely – receiving social support
  • Ways to find and make new friends with shared interests and experiences
  • For communication, creativity and activism
  • To develop skills e.g. YouTube tutorials
  • To learn and access advice and information
  • Helping build confidence in young people

On the flip side, 54% of those young people surveyed indicated that they had witnessed mean comments on social media.

Does social media have an impact on the physical health of children and teens?

The same government study looked at the potential harm to health of an increase in screen time for children and teens if this activity was replacing other behaviour that was more active e.g. playing outside or exercising. The conclusions suggested this may have an impact on the risk of childhood obesity. However, this was not directly linked to social media at all, merely spending time in front of screens, which can include watching TV as well as accessing social media platforms or messaging apps.

There have been other reports that indicate social media use late in the evenings can mean that children and teenagers get less sleep, or poorer quality sleep, which can have other negative knock on effects for physical, and mental wellbeing.

Social media and mental wellbeing for teens and children

There have been a number of studies carried out in recent years to try and work out if social media is damaging to the mental health of our children and teenagers. A study by Oxford University surveyed 12,000 10-15 year olds between 2009 and 2017 about their life satisfaction and the results indicated that the negative part social media played in this was ‘tiny’. NHS digital 2017 released statistics from 2017 showed an increase in the number of children and young people with emotional disorders over recent years, and included some of the factors associated with this, including:

  • Income and adversity
  • Bullying or cyberbullying
  • Sexuality and gender identity
  • Family, genetics and relationships
  • Social media use

This report suggested that using social media itself had no noticeable link to mental health, but the ways in which it was used could have an impact. For example, teenagers and children with a mental health disorder were more likely to use social media more often and for longer than their peers. They were also more likely to report that what they saw or did on social media had an impact on their mood. This was especially the case for young women.

What can parents do to minimise the risks of social media for their children?

Every child is different and the way in which young people respond emotionally or mentally to what they experience when using social media can vary. Some parents may choose to restrict use or control what their children can view or do on their smartphone. Others may closely monitor their child’s activity – using spying software for example. Other parents allow their children to make all their own decisions when it comes to social media and don’t usually get involved.

What’s right for you and your child might not be the same as some other families, which is why we developed Wing. The Wing app is designed not to spy on your child, but to use cutting edge artificial intelligence (AI) that can identify potential issues online. Wing can identify if your child seems to have been involved in an upsetting, angry or unsettling interaction online and can flag up ‘threats’ to their wellbeing for parents. However, Wing does this in a way that isn’t intrusive for the young person, without spying on all of their interactions or showing all of their activity to parents. Parents will only be notified if a threat is detected.

Wing is designed to give parents some peace of mind about their child’s emotional wellbeing online, keeping them in the loop with regular wellbeing reports but without the young person feeling that they are being spied on. Read our FAQs for more information.