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Resilience for the Digital World: Research into children and young people’s social and emotional wellbeing online

Over the past two decades, there has been a sharp increase in children’s use of digital media. The wide availability of mobile phones, tablets and gaming has fundamentally reshaped young people’s relationships with the online world. We know that children are now spending more time in front of screens; messaging on Apps, creating their own blogs, consuming the content of their peers who are broadcasting their own YouTube channels. The evidence outlined in this important review by Ecorys demonstrates the very real impact that the digital world can have on young people’s mental health and wellbeing. The heightened anxiety that social media use can bring is affecting the mood and sleep of many children. The widened and more immediate access to age-inappropriate and/or distressing content is also having a knock-on impact on young people’s self-esteem and perceptions about their bodies.

Similarly, bullying has followed many young people from the playground and classroom to their online profiles. This means that not only can the perpetrators continue their harassment online, but also this behaviour can attract additional bullying from strangers. That said, the review also highlights the important role that the web plays in supporting young people to share their concerns about the stresses they face in the everyday life, as a distraction from traumatic events, and a space to explore their identity and network with others managing a mental health condition. Young people tell us that digital media can result in positive benefits, such as building a sense of belonging, keeping in touch with a group of friends that share similar values and providing comfort and support to their peers.

To date, we have seen welcome changes in child protection to better respond to new and emerging digital risks. Similarly, industry is now taking more responsibility for the platforms they create, and maintain, through the introduction of filtering and reporting mechanisms. We believe, however, that the findings of the review should make us reconsider traditional responses from Government and industry to these challenges. Existing approaches fail to adequately understand how children and young people consume social media, and the ways in which they actively create and curate content online. The analysis demonstrates that many parents, teachers and responsible adults do not have the skills and knowledge necessary to support young people to navigate their use of social media or transmit positive values about how to safely contribute online.

Importantly, this evidence review makes a compelling case for an equal focus to be given to building children’s and young people’s digital resilience - the social, emotional literacy and digital competency required to positively respond to, and deal with, any risks they might be exposed to online.