Social Media


There are over 4 billion users of social media globally and nearly every person in the UK aged 16-24 years uses at least one social media platform. This, in addition to a rapid increase in mobile phone ownership, means young people can now be in constant contact with one another and their online activity has become increasingly private. There is emerging evidence of the risks of social media to health and wellbeing. Yet, young people tend to view social media as a largely positive influence in their lives. It also appears the impact of social media is nuanced and dependent on the activities the user engages in, and on users themselves. 

The following subsections provide an overview of the positive and negative issues which can arise from social media use among young people (aged 9+ years) in modern day middle and high income countries, which have the potential to impact on health and wellbeing. 

Excessive screen time and addiction 

In 2020, 5-16 year olds in the UK spent on average 3.3 hours per day on their mobile phones engaging in 'non-call' activities, and social media accounted for 63% of this time. Such levels of activity were categorised by the authors as moderate use. In 2015, 34% of Glasgow secondary school pupils spent more than eight hours per day on screen-based activities at the weekend: this level of use was categorised as extreme use

Social media addiction is estimated to affect approximately 5% of UK adolescents yet there is currently no clinical diagnosis, and establishing whether a young person is addicted can be difficult, particularly when internet access is perceived to be an intrinsic aspect of young people's lives today. A dose-response relationship between social media and mental health has been identified, where each additional hour of viewing increases the likelihood of experiencing socio-emotional problems. Although it has also been suggested that people with poor social skills are more prone to addiction due to their preference for online social interaction.

Nevertheless during the COVID-19 lockdown the internet has been rated as a key coping strategy for many people. Online access and social media has enabled young people to stay in touch with their peer groups and continue with daily activities such as schooling and hobbies. Although levels of online activity have increased among young people during lockdown the extent to which this is impacting on young people's health and wellbeing is as yet unknown.  

Online bullying 

The proportion of young people in the UK aged 9-16 years who experience online bullying has risen from 8% to 12% between 2010-14. Among Glasgow secondary school pupils, a higher proportion of bullying  was face to face (16%) compared to online (8%). However, young people use both methods of communication to bully therefore one form of bullying is not necessarily more prevalent than the other. Among these pupils, girls (25%) were more likely to be bullied than boys (17%) and girls were more likely to be emotionally affected by bullying compared to boys. 

Bullying can impact on confidence and self-esteem, reduce academic performance, increase feelings of loneliness and impact on sleeping and eating patterns. There are also robust associations between online bullying and depression, anxiety, suicide, and self-harm. 

Poor body image 

Young people in Scotland argue that one of the biggest problems with social media is the exposure to un-representative and unachievable body images which are often subjected to image manipulation techniques such as filters and Photoshop. Exposure to these images, even when users are aware that the images have been manipulated, can have a detrimental impact on self-esteem and body image. In fact, it is now the norm for young people to be unhappy with how their bodies look and function. In Scotland, adolescent girls have a poorer perception of their looks compared with boys, and the gender gap in perceived looks is now at its widest since 1990. 

There are links between poor body image and depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Poor body image is also associated with risky behaviours such as smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, and unsafe sexual practices. Those who suffer from poor body image at an early age are also more likely to carry these concerns into adulthood. 

Access to harmful content 

Due to the difficulty with which online materials can be censored or suppressed, extreme views and harmful content can be shared relatively freely. A European survey of 11-16 year-olds reported that 11% had seen websites where people discuss ways of hurting themselves, and 6% had seen pro-suicide websites. These are worrying trends given that in Scotland, 14% of 15-16 year-olds reported at least one episode of self-harm during their lifetime, and suicide among young men is increasing. 

It is difficult to tease apart how exposure to harmful content can influence young people. Research shows that young people are not wholly equipped to separate reality from fiction. For example, coverage of suicide in the media has been shown to have a positive link with rates of suicide among young people. On the other hand, social media offers more than just reinforcement of harmful behaviours and even extreme communities can offer a safe positive place for young people. There is also the danger that blaming social media for young peoples' behaviour diverts attention away from the true cause of the problem. 

Online gambling 

On average, young people in the UK gamble for the first time at 12 years of age. Among young people gambling is more prevalent than smoking cigarettes and using drugs, and one in ten 11-16 year-olds in the UK actively follow gambling companies on social media. Among Glasgow secondary school pupils there was a higher prevalence of gambling among young men (2.5%) than young women (0.4%).

Less than 1% of 11-16 year-olds in the UK are classified as 'problem gamblers' which is similar to the rates seen among adults. Evidence indicates that problem gambling may be connected to other antisocial and risk-taking behaviours, particularly among young men. In Scotland, young problem gamblers were significantly more likely to gamble as a way of escaping depression or anxiety; and were more likely to experience difficulties with schoolwork and other pupils. While young people may have a high rate of natural recovery from gambling problems, research shows that early-age and risky gambling may increase the likelihood of problem gambling in the adulthood. 


There is limited data surrounding the sexting behaviour of young people and the impact on health and wellbeing is unclear. However, a 2017 review (of primarily US data) estimated the prevalence of sexting among young people to range from 1% to 60%. A UK study of 13-15 year-olds identified that sexting was a gendered issue in which boys were typically the recipients and were more likely to coerce girls into sending them 'nudes'; and girls felt their sexting behaviour was subject to greater judgement. 

It is argued that a lack of understanding surrounding sexting has led to blurred lines between where atypical adolescent experimentation ends and where sexual exploitation begins. In the UK, while the age of sexual consent is 16 years, sexting under the age of 18 years (even when it is consensual from both individuals) is illegal. Consequently the UK legal framework has been criticised for not considering the sexual agency of 16- and 17-year-olds, and there are calls for sexting not to be viewed as uniformly illegal among these age groups and for the contextual variances (i.e. age, relationship status, and consent) in which sexting occurs to be considered. In contrast sexting in the context of coercion, blackmail, without consent, and among young people under the age of 16 years are indicators of sexual exploitation, harassment or abuse. 

Social-political activism 

Across the UK, around half a million young people engage with social-political groups via social media. Many believe these platforms give them a voice in matters from which they might previously have been excluded through conventional channels. Young people's involvement in social-political activism via social media has been essential for raising awareness and driving change. For example, the teenager Greta Thurnberg's school strike outside government buildings has inspired worldwide environmental activism among young people. This was largely attributed to her clever harnessing of social media to spur students around the world to join in to halt climate change. More recently, since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th 2020 in America, there has been an increase in Black Lives Matters activism on social media which has led to worldwide organised protests even during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

It is argued that youth-driven activism drives results, and it is possible that this level of engagement and passion may not exist without social media to gather young people together, globally, in support of one cause. 

Social-emotional support 

Over 90% of young people use social media to connect with their friends every day, and nearly two-thirds report that they make new friends through social media. For those with anxiety or who struggle to make social connections in the physical world, social media can offer an alternative while reducing isolation and feelings of loneliness. 

Social media is also known to be a valuable source of information and support, particularly for young people with mental health problems or those who find it difficult to access services. In recent years, various organisations have made the shift from crisis telephone hotlines to online and text-based support services. For example, 78% of young people contacting Childline do so via email or online chat and 59% of counselling is online. Online support has never been so critical as during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 when young people were unable to attend school, take part in sporting or leisure activities, or have physical contact with their friends and wider family. While the long-term consequences on health and wellbeing are unknown, there are concerns that the lockdown period has has increased levels of anxiety, loneliness and depression among young people. 

Further details on these indicators, including our recommendations, is available in the GCPH 21st Century Issues Children's Report Card available here