Social media and the internet can have both positive and negative effects on children’s mental health. Schools play an important role in educating children on how to stay safe online.
While more studies are being published in this area, it is still too early to say if social media use leads to children developing mental health problems. There are often many factors at play that could affect how a child uses social media and interacts with the internet that could impact the way they may feel and behave.
While research shows that social media and the internet can impact both positively and negatively on a child’s life and wellbeing, we are still at an early stage of understanding which children are at greater risk, and why.
Impact on mental health and wellbeing
Young people aged 11-19 with a mental health problem are more likely to use social media, than those without mental health problems.
Using social media can help some young people to 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.
There is currently little information on how the internet and social media impacts on the mental health, wellbeing and development of children under the age of 11. While you need to be over the age of 13 to use most social media platforms, data tells us that younger children are using social media, with 18% of 8-11 year olds reported to have a social media account.
Children’s use of the internet and devices in the UK in 2019
5-7 year olds
8-11 year olds
5% don’t have a smartphone
35% have a smartphone
42% have a tablet
47% have a tablet
67% go online for nearly 9.5 hours a week
93% go online for nearly 12.5 hours a week
4% have a social media account
18% have a social media account
63% play games for 7.5 hours a week
74% play games for 10 hours a week
40% use their mobile in bed
Source: 2019 OECD Report, What do we know about children and technology?
Here are some of the ways in which the internet and social media can impact both positively and negatively on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
- creates a sense of social support, connectedness and positive interaction, which can boost mental health
- helps to foster and sustain relationships with friends and family, especially those who live far away
- provides a way to make new friends and connections with peers who share similar interests or experiences
- helps some young people to be more open and honest with their friends about how they think and feel
- makes some young people feel supported and less alone during tough times, as they can read about other people’s similar experiences
- empowers young people with disabilities or communication needs through creating a sense of community and belonging
- helps children and young people to learn how to strengthen their mental health and keep themselves well
- provides easier access to informal and formal support – help that is available at different times of the day.
- social media can make young people feel less satisfied with life and it can have an impact on their self-esteem as they may constantly compare themselves to others - this can lead to an unhealthy reliance on receiving online feedback, feelings of envy, and anxiety over missing out
- girls are more likely to use social media to distort their body image
- social media can have a greater negative effect on young people who are already psychologically vulnerable. For example, those who are facing other social, friendship or academic challenges, or those with a tendency to see negative meanings in conversations (common among those experiencing depression)
- it can expose young people to bullying - this may range from sexting and sharing embarrassing images to creating fake profiles or mocking content
- it can expose children to harmful, stressful and triggering content, such as discussions on self-harm. 16% of 8-11 year olds who use the internet have at some point seen content they’ve found “worrying or nasty”
- some with social anxiety may withdraw more and become more socially isolated.
Spotting the signs
It may be difficult to spot the signs that a child is being affected by using social media or the internet, particularly when they are younger and in school. There could be, for example, many reasons why a child’s behaviour or mood has changed, but it’s important for school staff to consider social media and the internet as a factor that could be impacting on their mental health and wellbeing.
There are other potential risks that social media and the internet can have on children’s mental health, which may also affect their ability to thrive and achieve. These include the following:
Children who use social media at night may not be getting enough sleep. This can not only impact on their learning at school, but a lack of sleep can also increase pupils’ risk of depression and anxiety. Children aged 5-11 need to get between 11 hours and 9.5 hours of sleep a night.
Accessing harmful or inappropriate content
Children may access content that is violent, racist, hateful or features pornographic material. Children are also at risk of seeing targeted adverts that are unsuitable and inappropriate. Some studies show that children are more likely to stumble across pornography through targeted adverts or content, rather than intentionally searching for it. Children who are exposed to pornography may be traumatised, frightened and develop unrealistic perceptions of sexual behaviour.
Grooming or online abuse
When interacting with others online, children may not be aware of who they speaking to, or of that person’s intentions. Children are at risk of being groomed online or of developing inappropriate relationships that can lead to stalking, harassment, threatening behaviour, sexual exploitation, engaging in sexual acts or being made to view content of a sexual act, among other things. NSPCC research reveals that one in 10 girls under the age of 13 have received a request to send sexual messages or images of themselves.
Abuse online can have long-lasting effects on children’s mental health and wellbeing. Children may blame themselves and experience flashbacks. They are also more likely to experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety, and are more at risk or self-harming and suicide.
Children may carry out or be exposed to bullying behaviour online. Children with mental health problems are more than twice as likely as children without mental health problems to be bullied online. Like bullying offline, cyberbullying also increases a child’s risk of developing depression and lowered self-esteem.
Attitudes about body shape and size can start as early as three or four years old, when children are already becoming aware of societal pressures to look a certain way. Children may compare themselves to celebrities, bloggers or people they are inspired by and begin to filter or manipulate images of themselves to conform to “body ideals” that are often promoted online.
Children may go online to seek approval based on how they look, and absorb unhealthy attitudes about body image. Body dysmorphia disorder is when a child persistently worries about aspects of their body or how they look – this can have a huge impact on a child’s life.
What can schools do?
As children spend an increasing proportion of their time online, schools have an important role to play in helping pupils to use the internet in a safe, responsible and positive way. Schools will often use digital devices as a tool for learning, so it’s essential for schools to teach children about managing any risks online.
From September 2020, all primary schools in England will be required to teach aspects of online safety as part of the new relationships and health education curriculum. 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 can do – here are a few approaches:
- training school staff in online risks and safety issues, and on how to protect and support children online
- working with pupils from an early age to develop effective digital safety skills, policies and procedures to help children stay safe online both inside and outside of school
- talking openly about cyberbullying to help children 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
- encouraging pupils to get a good night’s sleep and switch off their phone an hour before they go to bed.
- focusing 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. 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.