Thinktank warns that heavy internet use can have damaging consequences but says educating teenagers more effective than limiting online access

More than one in three British 15-year-olds are “extreme internet users” who spend at least six hours a day online – which is more than their counterparts in all the other 34 OECD countries apart from Chile, research has found.

The report, by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) thinktank, says: “Over a third (37.3%) 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.

“The only OECD country with higher levels of extreme internet use than the UK was Chile.” The OECD published its findings in a report last year on students wellbeing in its 35 member states.

The report warns that children and young people’s heavy internet use can have damaging consequences. “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%) than moderate internet users (6.7%),” it states.

British children also start going online for the first time at a young age by international standards, the report discloses. “Nearly a third (27.6%) of young people in the UK were six years old or younger when they first used the internet. This is younger than the OECD average,” it says.

One in three (34%) UK children have experienced cyber-bullying, accessed harmful content such as a website promoting self-harm or had some other type of negative experience when using social media.

The report – by Emily Frith, an adviser to Nick Clegg when he was the deputy prime minister – adds that 95% of 15-year-olds use social media before or after school, again higher than the OECD average. She and the thinktank’s executive chairman, David Laws – a Liberal Democrat cabinet minister in David Cameron’s coalition government – want ministers to do more to help social media firms, families and schools to help young people become more mentally and emotionally resilient, to help them use social media and deal with the risks it poses.

Parents should not restrict their children’s access to the internet in a bid to protect them from its pitfalls, such as imposing time limits or banning access to certain sites, the report says. It warns of “the inefficacy of attempts to protect children and young people from all online risk”. Parents would be better making their children more resilient, especially in the face of the increasingly key role social media is playing in young lives.

“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,” said Frith.

“When it comes to making the internet safe, simply ‘protecting’ young people from harmful content will never be the whole solution,” said Matt Blow, a policy officer with the charity Young Minds.

“Children and young people actively engage with social media and we need to support them to understand the risks of how they behave online, and be empowered to make sense of and know how to respond to harmful content which they may come across.”

The EPI found that social media could also benefit young people’s emotional wellbeing by connecting them to others online and helping to build their character and build resilience, though they needed help with digital skills and how to stay safe online.

“Whether it’s SnapChatting friends, scrolling through Twitter or uploading Instagram stories, social media is big part of everyday life for young people,” said Blow.

“Social media can provide many benefits to young people but along with that comes added pressure to live in the public eye, seeking reassurance through likes and shares, and exposure to content which could be harmful or upsetting.” 

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