Third of 15-year-olds indulge in extreme internet use linked to mental ill health, study shows

Those who spend at least six hours a day online are more likely to be bullied than those who use the internet in moderation, new research suggests

Adi Bloom

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More than a third of 15-year-olds can be classed as extreme internet users, with online habits that could have harmful effects on their wellbeing, a new report claims.

But restricting which websites children and teenagers are allowed to visit could prevent them from developing the ability to handle risk, the study from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) argues.

For its new report, published today, the EPI examined available evidence about the effect that using social media has on pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.

It found that 37.3 per cent of 15-year-olds in the UK qualified as extreme internet users – meaning that they were on the internet for at least six hours a day. This was significantly higher than the average across Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries: the only country with higher internet use was Chile.

British teenagers are also extensive users of social media: 94.8 per cent of 15-year-olds used social media before or after school.

But, the report states, evidence points towards a correlation between extreme use of social media and poor wellbeing.

Those teenagers classed as extreme internet users were more likely to report being bullied than moderate internet users: 17.8 per cent of extreme users agreed with the statement that “other students spread nasty rumours about me”, compared with 6.7 per cent of moderate users.

The EPI report says: "While 12 per cent of children who spend no time on social networking websites on a normal school day have symptoms of mental ill health, that figure rises to 27 per cent for those who are on the sites for three or more hours a day."

'A coping mechanism'

It also cites the Office for National Statistics, which had "found a 'clear association' between longer time spent on social media and mental health problems".

However, the report adds: “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.”

Nonetheless, the EPI report says that there is evidence that use of social media can have a beneficial impact on young people’s emotional wellbeing. Social media allows them to improve their social skills, develop resilience and collaborate on school projects.

“Young people recognise the value of opportunities to connect online,” it states. “Teenagers with mental health problems or concerns are also able to seek support on the internet, either through social media networks or through online provision of advice and counselling support.”

Handling online risk

But the report concludes that it is vital that pupils are equipped with sufficient digital skills to help them navigate the internet. In fact, the evidence indicated that restricting children’s access to the internet in order to keep them safe may be counterproductive – it could inhibit them from developing the skills they need to handle online risk.

“Restricting a child’s use of the internet has been shown to reduce the chances of them experiencing online risks, but not to reduce harm caused to those who do go on to experience risks,” the report states.

Emily Frith, director of mental health at the EPI, said that the report highlighted the importance of equipping pupils with skills to enable them to cope with online risk.

She said: “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 to lead safe digital lives.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, said: “With internet usage above the OECD average, children in the UK face more of the challenges that using social media can bring.

“It is important that schools can provide students with safe access to the internet for learning. The benefits of easy access for pupils are clear – but so are the dangers. The responsibilities on teachers and schools leaders in this area are huge, and it is a duty schools take very seriously.

"To secure this, we have consistently called for greater training and support for teachers to be able to keep pace with technological change."

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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