Published on
14 June 2019

Our CEO, Javed Khan, talks about the impact of social media on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Young person laying down looking at screen

We’re told the world is getting smaller. That’s certainly true in one sense: we can FaceTime friends and relatives across the globe in just seconds. Distance is no longer a barrier to communication. 

But what we don’t often think about is how, in other ways, the world is actually expanding. Rapid advances in technology have opened up new possibilities that simply weren’t there when I was a child.

The internet offers incredible opportunities for children to learn, play, and be part of a virtual community with young people who may live far away but share similar interests. Just think about Swedish teen Greta Thunberg who inspired an international movement to stand up to climate change. And for children who are struggling – the internet is a space where they can express their thoughts and beliefs, access support and reduce isolation.

But, just like in the real world, there’s a darker side to the internet.

Before the World Wide Web, it was easier for many parents to shelter children from harm. X-rated magazines were on the top shelf – literally out of reach. And you could leave the bullies behind at the school gates. But in 2019, growing up digital brings exposure to harsh realities at a much earlier age — whether they’re ready for it or not.

The rise of smartphones and tablets means children’s relationships are now increasingly conducted online, and they are navigating new friendships often unchaperoned and hidden from view. In the playground, or the living room at home, as adults we can observe how children are interacting with each other – and step in if we see anything concerning. In a world of 24 hour connectivity, these protections don’t exist online. Children can be exposed to unhealthy relationships – whether that’s bullying on social media, or viewing violent pornography – harming their self-esteem and making them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation offline.  

We already know we’re facing a crisis in children’s mental health. One in eight children aged between five and 19 in England have at least one mental health disorder. The Government’s Green Paper on children’s mental health proposes improved support in schools, but at best this would benefit just a quarter of children in England by 2022-3. 

But with children spending on average almost five hours a day on social media, we must look at how platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook may be affecting their mental health.

This is exactly what Barnardo’s new report "Left to Their Own Devices" seeks to do. We surveyed some of our frontline workers across the UK to build a picture of how the vulnerable children we support are affected by social media.

The report makes for disturbing reading. It shows children as young as five are at risk of becoming addicted to social media. When you consider that most platforms say they don’t even allow children to sign up for accounts until they are 13 this becomes particularly concerning.

Frontline workers told us some children start looking at social media as early as two-years-old and children as young as five have been exposed to unsuitable or harmful materials online or have been victims of cyberbullying.

And the risks grow as children reach puberty. Nearly 80 per cent of the frontline workers we surveyed told us they have worked with 11-15-year-olds who have self-harmed or attempted suicide because of cyberbullying.

At Barnardo’s we support the UK’s most vulnerable children – by the time they reach us they have already been through traumatic experiences, including sexual abuse or exploitation, domestic abuse at home, neglect, trafficking, family break up, parental alcohol or substance misuse, or being taken into care. These are what we call "adverse childhood experiences" and, unchecked, they can be the foundations on which serious mental health issues develop.

Young people who have experienced childhood trauma are more susceptible to the negative impacts of social media on their mental health because they are less likely to have a strong family to support them, they are more likely to be isolated from friends or wider support networks, and they may already be suffering from low self-esteem, anxiety or depression. But so far, research and policy focused on the impact of social media has not looked directly at the impact on children most at risk.

Recently, the Government proposed changes that would help regulate the internet and make it safer for children. This includes welcome proposals for a new independent regulator – as the Daily Telegraph has been calling for in its "Duty of Care" campaign. This should ensure internet bosses make the UK one of the safest places in the world for children to be online.
It’s vital that the next Prime Minister quickly turns these proposals into changes in the law – and focuses specifically on protecting the most vulnerable. It would be a tragedy if this work doesn’t get done.

But education, for both children and parents, is also vital. The Government must take steps so that all children and young people can access education and guidance on social media use, and that parents and carers are supported to help children use social media safely.

The internet opens up fantastic new opportunities for young people to explore and broaden their horizons. But not enough is known about its impact on children’s mental health, particularly on vulnerable groups. It is vital more research is carried out now to help us understand it.

Just as we expect zebra crossings on roads, and barriers around play areas in parks, online spaces must be made safe too for children so they can enjoy all the benefits without putting their mental health at risk.

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Barnardo's exists to help the most vulnerable children in the UK. Read more about our research on children's social media and mental health.