30th June 2017

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

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

The report, Social media and children’s mental health: a review of the evidence, scrutinises the latest evidence on the digital lives of young people, the benefits and risks associated with using social media, and the evolving nature of technology.

Key findings

Developing digital skills and building resilience

  • There is evidence of a beneficial impact of social media on 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.
  • 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 – restricted access also inhibits the development of the skills and resilience needed to handle such risks.

Risks of social media use

  • 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. 34 per cent of UK children have experienced at least one of these risks.
  • 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.
  • More research is needed to understand the causal relationship between social networking and mental health and wellbeing problems.

Technological change and policy responses

  • 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.
  • 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.