Nine out of 10 heads say social media is damaging the mental health of pupils

ASCL survey reveals that nine out of 10 headteachers consider social media to be damaging to the mental health of pupils

A survey of headteachers has found that 95% feel that social media use is damaging the mental health and wellbeing of young people – and that there is overwhelming support for new laws and regulation to keep children safe online.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) surveyed 460 secondary school headteachers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in January. They lead a wide range of schools in both the state and independent sectors.
They were asked about the impact on pupils of social media use over the past 12 months:

  • 95% felt that the mental health and wellbeing of a proportion of their pupils had suffered as a result of social media use, with many (39%) saying more than half of their pupils were affected. (See table 1 below)
  • Almost all (459 respondents) had received reports of pupils being bullied on social media, with 40% saying that incidents were reported on a daily or weekly basis.
  • Almost all (457 respondents) had received reports of pupils encountering upsetting material on social media – such as sexual content, self-harm, bullying, or hate speech – with 27% saying incidents were reported on a daily or weekly basis.
  • 89% had received reports of pupils being approached by strangers on social media sites.
  • 93% had received reports of pupils experiencing low self-esteem as a result of seeing idealised images and experiences on social media, with 22% saying that pupils reported such feelings on a daily or weekly basis.
  • 96% had received reports of pupils missing out on sleep as a result of social media use, with 32% saying they received such reports on a daily or weekly basis.

Nine out of 10 headteachers (93%) said that new laws and regulation should be introduced to ensure social media sites keep children safe, and 77% said the government and social media companies should produce more information for parents.
In October, the government launched a strategy to make Britain “the safest place in the world to be online” with proposals for a voluntary code of practice for social media providers, but the NSPCC wants the code to be mandatory and backed up by an independent regulator (see editor’s notes for further details).
ASCL is releasing the survey at our annual conference which takes place today (Friday 9 March) and tomorrow (Saturday 10 March) at the Birmingham ICC.
In his speech to conference delegates on Saturday morning, General Secretary Geoff Barton will be highlighting his concerns about the extent to which the pressures of social media are affecting the mental health and wellbeing of young people.
Speaking today, Mr Barton said: “Social media can be a force for good, helping young people to connect with each other in a positive manner. But it also has a dark side which can be seen only too clearly from our survey.
“It is a technology which has grown at great speed, outstripping our ability as a society to understand and mitigate against these negative impacts. More must be done to protect young people so that they can enjoy social media safely and responsibly.
“We recognise that the government is trying to find solutions but we are not convinced that the current proposals go far enough. We will be seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State for Education to discuss the findings of our survey and to explore the options for more stringent safeguards and more public information for parents.”
Andy Burrows, NSPCC Associate Head of Child Safety Online, said: “Through Childline we hear from thousands of young people who are at crisis point with their mental and emotional health. Their problems can often be intensified by the inescapable intrusion of social media, and the impression that their friends are living more exciting and fun lives than they are.
“Everyone has a role to play when it comes to protecting children from the risks of being bullied, harassed or groomed online. That means parents talking to their children about their online lives; schools equipping young people with the skills and awareness they need to keep safe; and Government making sure social networking sites are doing more to put child safety at the heart of their policies.”
Headteachers’ comments
In the survey, headteachers described a wide range of activities in their schools to teach children to stay safe and well online. These include personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) and IT lessons, discussion sessions, speakers and seminars, assemblies, and dedicated awareness days.
Many felt that parents should take more responsibility and needed more information about how to keep their children safe online.
One headteacher said: “Whilst the school educates students and imposes limits of acceptable use, many parents are unable or unwilling to apply limits at home. A very small number of parents also behave badly on social media. When the school arranges e-safety meetings for parents there is very limited attendance. A national campaign to educate parents and alert them to the dangers of social media would support the education that is happening in schools for students.”
Another said: “Far too frequently parents join in with trolling or abuse incidents or model abusive or harmful social media behaviour to their children themselves; the classic example being parents wading in on social media with threats of violence or confrontation to ‘protect’ their own child.”
Headteachers said social media misuse occurs outside of school but the problems it causes then spill over into school time and distract from learning.
One headteacher said: The number of issues the school is having to resolve weekly and sometimes daily as a result of bullying through social media that occurs outside of school, has increased rapidly and substantially. Not only does this have a detrimental effect on the well-being of individual pupils, but it also is having an impact on learning and progress and is diverting valuable and scarce resources away from the classroom.”
Another said: “We regularly have to deal with peer conflict, which often extends amongst families and the wider community and which has started on social media out of school hours. This not only takes up valuable resources, but also detracts from our main purpose of educating young people.”
Headteachers also reported how social media misuse led to severe welfare issues, such as young people self-harming.
One headteacher said: “Pupils’ use of social media has accelerated in the past five years and at the same time, reporting of mental health issues, self-harming and threatened suicide have increased. Five years ago our safeguarding log had one entry per week at most – now it is daily.”
And another said: “We have seen a big increase in cases of self-harm related to the use of social media. When in the past the first weeks after a break used to be quiet they are now much worse as pupils seek to settle arguments that have been enhanced over the holidays.”
About the survey
This was an online survey which was circulated by email to the headteachers of secondary schools in England, Northern Ireland and Wales in January 2018. It was completed by 460 respondents. Most respondents (420) are from schools in England, with 25 from Wales, and 15 from Northern Ireland. They are from a wide range of schools including academies (48%), maintained schools (23%), independent schools (11%) and grammars (seven per cent).

Table 1. Do you think the mental health and wellbeing of pupils has suffered as a result of social media use over the past 12 months?
Answer Choices Responses
No pupils affected 0.00% 0
1% to 10% of pupils affected 5.87% 27
11% to 25% of pupils affected 20.87% 96
26% to 50% of pupils affected 29.57% 136
51% to 75% of pupils affected 21.52% 99
75% to 90% of pupils affected 12.17% 56
More than 90% of pupils affected 5.00% 23
Don’t know 5.00% 23
Answered 460

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