Social media sites harming pupils’ mental health, heads warn

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Headteachers are calling for new social media laws to keep children safe, amid concerns that youngsters’ use of these sites is harming their mental health.

Most school leaders have received reports of pupils being bullied or being exposed to unsuitable material – such as sexual content or hate speech, with some saying this is happening on a daily or weekly basis, according to a small-scale poll by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

There were also concerns about parents’ behaviour on social media.

The poll, which questioned 460 secondary school heads across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, found that 95% believe that the mental health and wellbeing of pupils has suffered as a result of social media use over the past 12 months.

Nearly all of those polled said that they had received reports of pupils being bullied on social media, with 40% saying incidents were reported on a daily or weekly basis, while almost all had received reports of pupils encountering material including sexual content, self-harm, bullying or hate speech, with 27% saying this was reported on a daily or weekly basis.

More than nine in 10 (93%) said new laws and regulations should be introduced to ensure social media sites keep children safe, while three quarters (77%) think that the Government and social media firms should produce more information for parents.

The Government has said it wants the UK to be “the safest place in the world to be online” and has announced it will introduce a new code of practice this year, setting out the minimum expectations on social media companies.

One headteacher raised concerns that while their school educates students and sets rules on acceptable use, parents do not do so at home.

“A very small number of parents also behave badly on social media,” the head said.

“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 told ASCL: “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.”

“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.”

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton will tell the conference on Saturday: “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.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “Growing up in today’s world is not always easy; that’s why we are improving our support for children with mental health issues, with training for teachers on how to recognise and respond to mental illness.

“The Government is also looking at how we make sure pupils are taught about mental wellbeing and the effect of internet harm as part of our work to improve Relationships Education and Relationships
and Sex Education and Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education.

“The Government is also taking action to make the UK the safest place in the world by introducing a social media code of practice and an annual transparency report.

“Additionally, we have funded guidance on how schools can tackle cyberbullying. These measures include setting standards and tracking companies’ progress in stamping out online harm.”

– The poll questioned 460 headteachers in January.

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