This report by Youthworks in partnership with Internet Matters reveals that the numbers of children viewing harmful content online dramatically increased over a period of four years, between 2015 and 2019, with particular concern relating to body image and the “pressure to look perfect”.
An alarming new trend has emerged among children – particularly boys – aspiring to muscular bodies and six packs, thought to be fuelled by the images they see and want to copy.
Nearly a third of boys (29%) said they had been exposed to content encouraging them to build their bodies up – with many urged to buy substances that might not be safe. The most likely group to be viewing the content was 13-year-old boys.
Those who “often” viewed content encouraging them to bulk up their bodies had lower self-respect than those who never saw this type of content, the report found.
They were also less likely to say ‘I feel happy with myself’, 69% in contrast to 85% of those who never look at this kind of material.
In the UK-wide survey of 11-17-year-olds, one in four (25%) young people said they had seen pro-suicide content– up from 11% in 2015. Almost one in three (28%) girls visited sites or saw messages that “pressure me to be too thin”.
Meanwhile, one in eight children (13%) saw content about self-harm. Over a quarter (27%) of children said their online life influenced how they tried to look, more than half (53%) said they were more confident behind a screen, and 21% admitted their online life made them always or sometimes “unhappy about how I look”.
The report also highlighted positive experiences – with 37% of those surveyed saying they feel good because of their time spent online, 52% saying their online life has helped them find and talk to people like them most or some of the time. More than eight out of 10 (84%) said their online life helped them relax after school.
However, it found too few children were following online safety advice taught in school or from their parents, especially as they got older.
While 11-year olds were the most likely age group to follow online safety advice, by the age of 15, when risks are higher, only 46% always followed the advice.
And while two thirds of teens said they would turn to their parent or carer if they had a problem online, 50% said their parents “don’t understand enough about online issues”.
28% of children have been exposed to content encouraging them to ‘bulk up their bodies’ – mostly among boys who may hope to achieve a perfect ripped physique. Over a quarter of girls have seen pro-anorexia content and the number of teens viewing pro-suicide content has more than doubled since 2015 – seen by one in four young people.
The report is the largest and most robust survey of its kind in the UK, with nearly 15,000 children aged 11-17 taking part across 82 schools across the country. In the latest report, it draws out key themes from what young people tell us about their online lives.
- There is a need to refresh and adapt online safety advice to be relevant, age appropriate and practical. The Cybersurvey has repeatedly found that too few young people follow the advice.
- A new dialogue is needed with young people in their mid-teens. At this age identities and relationships are formed and they are experimental and taking risks. They are bored with school online safety lessons and say they want to explore how to handle real situations, not be given rules.
- Targeted support is required for young people who are already vulnerable offline. Cases should be escalated for safeguarding or for priority access to mental health services where necessary.
- Emotional health and pre-existing offline vulnerability influence how some young people act online, leading them to take risks or, because of a need for affirmation, to overshare or eagerly believe people they do not know. This should be acknowledged and safer ways to fulfil emotional needs can be introduced to them.
- Services around the child need specialist training and procedures to be able to support vulnerable young people to handle their complex digital experiences.
- The exposure of so many children to content talking about suicide cannot be brushed aside. They may be sharing it, but it is often found somewhere online first. The pro-anorexia and other body image content being seen is alarming not only because of the direct harm caused by an eating disorder but also because those with eating disorders scored the highest levels of online risk in a number of questions that did not ask about body image.
- Parents need the confidence to engage with and sustain the conversation with their teenager about online life. Their life experience can come into play here as it is not solely a digital issue – about which they may feel inadequately informed – but about human relationships and interactions. It will not be enough to talk to eleven-year olds and then leave it to luck.