Internet and social media

Social media and the internet can have both positive and negative effects on children and young people’s mental health. Schools play an important role in educating pupils on how to stay safe online.

Internet and social media

Research into the impact of internet and social media use on the mental health of young people is lacking. In a 2020 report, the Royal College of Psychiatrists called for more detailed and extensive studies in this area.

We know that the internet and social media can impact both positively and negatively on a young person’s life and wellbeing.

For example, a 2019 review from the government’s Science and Technology Committee found that the majority of teenagers said that social media improved their relationships with their friends. However, the same report also highlights research stating that young people with a mental health disorder were more likely to use social media, and more likely to be on social media for longer.

Increase in internet and social media use by age

5-7 year olds 

8-11 year olds 

 12-15 year olds

5% have a smartphone 

35% have a smartphone 

83% have a smartphone

67% go online for nearly 9.5 hours a week 

93% go online for nearly 12.5 hours a week 

99% go online for nearly 20.5 hours a week

4% have a social media account 

18% have a social media account 

69% have a social media account

Source: 2019 OECD Report, What do we know about children and technology?

Impact on mental health and wellbeing

Young people utilise social media for a number of reasons. Using social media can help some young people access support, receive reassurance, feel connected or manage social anxiety.

But for others, using social media can become compulsive and fuel unhealthy comparisons. It can expose them to bullying and see them becoming more isolated, which can lead to their mental health deteriorating. 

What schools and further education settings can do

If you are at all concerned about a child or young person, you should always speak to your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority. They will be able to advise on suitable next steps, and speaking to them about any concerns should always be the first action you take, ahead of any of the suggestions on this page.

As children and young people spend an increasing proportion of their time online, education settings have an important role to play in helping pupils to use the internet in a safe, responsible and positive way. Schools and colleges will often use digital devices as a tool for learning, so it’s essential for them to teach children and young people about managing any risks online.  

Search our resource library for tips, activities and lesson plans on how to keep children safe online and build their digital resilience.  

There are lots of things that schools and colleges can do – here are a few approaches: 

  • training school/college staff in online risks and safety issues, and on how to protect and support children and young people online. This can include how to notice when a young person feels emotionally unsafe online.
  • working with pupils to develop effective digital safety skills, policies and procedures to help children and young people stay safe online both inside and outside of the education setting
  • talking openly about cyberbullying to help children and young people understand what behaviour is not acceptable online, what the consequences are for violating these rules, and how they might report cyberbullying 
  • working with and informing parents and carers on how they can reduce their child’s exposure to online risks 
  • encouraging peer support where pupils are trained and supervised to offer their peers advice on how to stay safe online. This Anna Freud Centre resource shares advice for young people on how to support a friend who may be having difficulties with their mental health  
  • encouraging pupils to track how much time that they are spending online and to get a good night’s sleep and switch off their phone an hour before they go to bed. This can include helping pupils to stagger and slowly reduce the time that they spend online and increase the balance with non-online activities
  • encouraging pupils to reflect on their use of social media – how they feel before they use it and how they feel afterwards. If they notice that it is having a negative effect on their emotions and behaviours, encourage them to review the people or accounts that they are engaging with, or speak to someone that they trust
  • primary schools should focus on strengthening children’s digital safety prior to transitioning to secondary school.

Online counselling and support services

If a child feels worried, unsafe or needs to chat to someone, refer them to Childline where they can chat to a counsellor over the phone (0800 1111) or online. Older children may prefer to contact The Mix on 0808 808 4994 or online. You can also view our resource library for details of other more specialist helpline services.  

NetAware is a helpful platform to signpost parents and carers to. This website reviews the most popular apps, games and social media platforms that children use, and provides useful information and advice on any potential risks to be aware of. 

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