Use of digital media
for children and young people
Digital media provides opportunities for learning, connecting with people, exploring the world and having fun. However, sometimes it can also cause problems if used too much or in the wrong way. This information looks at the use of digital media in young people, and is aimed at young people and their parents and carers.
When we use the phrase ‘digital media’, we might just think of social media like Instagram or TikTok. However, digital media also includes devices like televisions, computers, tablets and smart phones, and as well as things like websites, television shows and podcasts.
There are many positives to using digital media. It can be used to learn, explore new information and ideas, have fun and stay in contact with friends and family. People of all ages probably use at least one form of digital media, and many of us stay in touch with people over the phone, through WhatsApp or on social media. Many schools use digital media to help young people learn, and often homework is shared online so it can be completed easily at home.
When used sensibly and in moderation, digital media can be a normal part of your life.
Digital media can lead to variety of problems that can be divided into seven key areas:
- Spending too much time on digital media and ignoring family, friends, homework and sleep.
- Looking at inappropriate content such as sexualised or violent images or videos.
- Talking to strangers online, or to people that you don’t know very well.
- Looking at information that might be misleading or potentially dangerous. For example, information about losing weight or extreme political content.
- Looking at what your friends and other people you follow are doing online and comparing yourself negatively
- Disclosing too much information about yourself.
- Spending too much money online either intentionally or accidentally (for example, by spending money in online games).
Anyone can end up using digital media in a way that negatively affects them, and we should all think about how and when we use it. It can be helpful for everyone to take a moment to add up how many times a day they check their phones, how much time they spend online and how long they spend gaming.
There is some evidence to suggest that some children and young people might be more vulnerable to their mental health being negatively affected by digital media. For example, children who already have mental health problems, children who feel isolated and children with conditions such as ADHD or autistic spectrum disorders.
Here are some ways that young people can use digital media more safely. These tips can also be useful for people of any age:
Set time limits
It is very easy to lose track of how long you spend scrolling on Instagram, how many videos you watch on TikTok or how long you spend gaming. Think about how much time you are spending on your devices, and if you can consider setting time limits. You could put aside ‘protected time’ where you are not on your devices so that you still have time to do other important things like homework, reading, sports or other activities you enjoy.
Get some sleep
Sleep is important. Try to avoid looking at your phone or other screens in the hours before you go to bed, and either turn off your phone or put it on silent when you’re asleep. The sounds and light that your phone gives off can be distracting and spoil your sleep. If possible, try not to have phones, devices or screens of any sort in your bedroom.
Stay safe online
Remember, the internet is a bit like a city centre. It’s a public space full of people you don’t know, and for that reason it’s important to think about your safety. If someone is making you feel uncomfortable or upset, or if someone you don’t know well asks for information about you or asks if you can meet up, talk to someone you trust.
Don’t believe everything you read
The internet can be informative and interesting, but it is also easy to take on board misleading or incorrect information without realising it. This could look like someone you follow on social media posting information about how to lose weight dangerously quickly, or articles with statistics in them that aren’t based on high-quality research. If you see something that worries you or that you don’t understand, speak to someone you trust.
It’s easy to feel left out or bad about yourself when you see people online looking their best or having fun. Remember that people often only share the fun and interesting things that they do, and probably only post flattering pictures of themselves. What you see online won’t be an accurate representation of that person’s entire life.
Before you post a picture or send a message, remember that other people will see what you’re sharing. Even if you have private accounts or a small group of online friends that you know in real life, it’s easy for someone to share pictures or messages further than you would like them to be shared. Nothing is ever really ‘gone’ from the internet and even ‘disappearing’ messages can be shared.
Don’t let the internet get expensive
Game or app purchases can add up, and it’s important to think about how much you’re spending, especially if you are using someone else’s money. Always check that a website is secure before you put your card details into it, or you could end up having your details stolen and losing a lot of money. Speak to someone you trust before you share any financial details, and get a second opinion if you think a website looks suspicious.
For many parents and carers, knowing how to support young people with their use of digital media can be challenging, especially if a young person is using websites, apps or games that you aren’t familiar with. Here are some tips to help you to engage with young people on their use of digital media in a positive and productive way.
Parents and carers should talk to children and young people about their use of digital media and try to set agreed time limits around digital media use. It can be helpful for parents and carers to support children and young people to develop a plan to balance time spent online and offline. Offline time can be used to spend time with family and friends, exercising or doing creative tasks that don’t involve digital media.
Apps, websites and other online services have recommended ages in the same way that films do. If you choose to allow younger children below the recommended age to access these, think carefully about their level of understanding around what they might end up viewing.
Parents and carers can set restrictions on devices to block explicit images, certain apps and online purchases. The NSPCC has provided information on how to do this. There are also options for remote device management systems, some of which are free, that can allow parents to have more oversight of things like how long their child has been using an app for.
Parents and carers know their children well, and will often have had lots of conversations with them about other kinds of safety. For example, you may have told them not to run into the road or what to do if someone says or does something to them that they don’t like. However, it’s also important to explain the importance of online safety. Explain to them that the internet is a public place and should be used thoughtfully. Encourage them to talk to someone they trust if something happens to them online that worries or upsets them.
Encourage critical thinking
Explain to children that anyone can post online, and encourage them to think critically about the sites they are visiting. Remind young people that what they see online often does not tell the full picture about a person’s life, and that information online can be misleading or inaccurate.
It can be difficult to start conversations with young people about mental health, but it can help to encourage them to come to you if they have experienced something while using digital media that has upset them. It might be helpful to wait until you are alone with your child and you both have time to talk properly.
Talk about sharing
Take time to have open conversations about sharing images and messages online. It’s important to emphasise that anything young people share with others online isn’t private, even personal or sensitive content. For guidance on sexting and sending naked images, read the section on further help at the end of this leaflet.
Model sensible use
Show children and young people by your actions what good decisions and boundaries around digital media look like. Don’t use devices at meal times and suggest devices are not kept in anyone’s bedrooms at night (where possible). You might find this helpful for you too!
Information for young people
- MindEd - MindEd is a free educational resource on children, young people, adults and older people's mental health
- Childline information on sexting- This information from the charity Childline offers reliable information for young people on what to do if they are being pressured to send nudes and what to do if they have sent something they are worried about.
- Kidscape information on staying safe on social media- Useful tips for young people on staying safe online
Information for parents and carers
If a young person you know is struggling with their use of digital media, speak to their school and see what help they can offer. Here are some websites to support you:
- NSPCC – The children’s charity NSPCC can support you if you are worried about a young person’s use of digital media. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Telephone: 0808 800 5000
- NSPCC, parental controls - Find out how to set up parental controls to help keep your child safe online.
Information for teachers and schools
If a child at your school is struggling with their use of digital media, here are some resources to help:
- MediaSmart – MediaSmart provides free teaching resources and parent guides on subjects like social media, body image and influencer marketing to help young people confidently navigate the media they consume.
- Gov.uk - guidance for sending nudes and semi-nudes for people working with young people.
- Centre for Mental Health – Read the Centre for Mental Health’s briefing on the impacts of social media on young people.
Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB) and the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (NCCMH).
Expert authors: Dr Louise Theodosiou and Dr Peter Sweeney
This resource reflects the best possible evidence at the time of writing.
Full references for this resource are available on request.
Published: Aug 2022
Review due: Aug 2025
© Royal College of Psychiatrists