Wellbeing fears raised for UK’s ‘extreme internet users’

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

More than a third of 15-year-olds in the UK are classed as “extreme internet users”, meaning they are online for more than six hours a day.

This is markedly higher than the average across other countries within the OECD and brings with it repercussions for the young people’s health and wellbeing.

The findings come in a report published last week by the think-tank Education Policy Institute (EPI). They also reveal that
94.8 per cent of 15-year-olds use social media – slightly above the OECD average.

The report presents a review of the research evidence relating to social media use and its impact on mental health among other areas.

It highlights the benefits of social media, including on homework, creative projects and social connections.

It also points to evidence showing that moderate use of social media can help to build digital skills and resilience. Those facing mental health problems can also source help via the internet and social media.

However, the study identifies a range of risks associated with social media, including excessive internet use, sharing too much private information, cyber-bullying, the impact on body image, and harmful content or advice (especially related to self-harm).

It states that 34 per cent of UK children have experienced one or more of these risks.

And, perhaps obviously, it warns that the more time young people spend online, the more likely they are to report issues such as bullying and mental health problems. Also, young people who spend longer amounts of time online are more likely to report lower levels of life satisfaction.

However, the report says that more research is needed to “understand the causal relationship between social networking and mental health and wellbeing problems”.

The report adds: “These are indicators of association and do not necessarily prove that social media causes harm to young people’s wellbeing. This may be a sign that young people are using the internet as a coping mechanism when they experience difficulties at school. Equally, it could be the case that excessive internet use is preventing these young people from developing stronger relationships offline.”

There is also a warning for policy-makers in the report: “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.”

Emily Frith, director of mental health at the EPI, said: “This report highlights how social media, when used in moderation, can have a beneficial impact on young people. While we also find a negative link between excessive social media use and young people’s mental wellbeing, there is no evidence that it is the direct cause of such problems.

“Our research highlights the importance of equipping young people with skills that help them counter emerging online risks. That doesn’t mean protecting them from the internet but rather putting forward proactive measures centred on resilience-building – an approach that is vital in helping young people lead safe digital lives”.


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