The internet is great in many ways. It helped us learn and work remotely when we had to stay at home because of COVID. It lets us communicate with friends and family across the world. And it’s an amazing way to quickly share knowledge and information.
At the same time, we know that young people can come across harmful and distressing content online (especially through social media). Young people can see violent or sexual content, bullying or patterning (where someone shares video or images of a young person being humiliated), and graphic content around self-harm, disordered eating, and suicide.
We spoke to Dr Ritu Mitra, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, to find out how young people can protect their wellbeing when harmful content exists online, and what parents, carers, and families can do to help.
Understand how social media works
You’ve probably heard of algorithms – processes or sets of rules computers follow. On social media, algorithms are responsible for the content you see. They play a role in determining the content that jumps to the top of your feed, the content you’re recommended through ads, and the content you see on For You and Explore pages.
Ultimately, social media platforms design their algorithms to show you content that keeps you on their app. The companies behind the platforms want you to spend more and more time on their app so you’ll see more ads, because this means the company gets more money. Features like infinite scrolling and app notifications can make it even trickier to take a break from your screen.
‘Whilst we can all appreciate the joy that interacting with others online, funny videos, cartoons, and jokes, can bring,’ says Dr Mitra, ‘It’s undeniable that the longer you spend online, the more likely it is that you’ll come across the less desirable content.
‘It may be helpful to give yourself a time limit for how long you spend online and be intentional on what you want to access. Young people I work with have shared they’ve found apps or browser extensions that block access to certain apps or sites can be helpful (for example, BlockSite) – you might even be able to set limits for specific apps in your phone settings! Perhaps you could also ‘buddy up’ with a friend or family member to keep each other on track.’
Even if you’re working or engaging with supportive mental health content, for example, around ED recovery or alternatives to self-harm, Dr Mitra still recommends taking regular breaks.
‘Breaks are important for a number of reasons,’ she explains. ‘Even if you’re using your phone for work or school projects, just the high level of ‘blue light’ emitted from screens can cause eye-strain, headaches, and fatigue! It can be helpful to just start tracking your screen time, looking at times of the day you may be able to cut down, and thinking of an alternative way to spend your free time’.
Algorithms can get it wrong
A major downside to algorithms is that they can show young people upsetting or inappropriate content, even though most platforms claim they take steps to protect them.
A BBC journalist recently set up accounts for a pretend 13 year old boy. When they engaged with popular topics for young people (including anti-knife crime content), they were recommended content such as people showing off knives and knives for sale.
Other young people might follow eating disorder or self-harm recovery content – but then find that they’re recommended unhelpful content that doesn’t promote recovery.
If you come across harmful or distressing content online, you can report it and take steps to look after yourself.
Report harmful content
If you’re shown content that’s distressing or inappropriate, you can report it so that social media platforms can take it down. Each platform has its own reporting process.
The website ReportHarmfulContent.com has information to help you find how to report things on different social media platforms. They can also help remove harmful content, escalate unsolved reports, or explain why content hasn’t been removed. They cover eight types of online harm: threats, impersonation, bullying and harassment, self-harm or suicide content, online abuse, violent content, unwanted sexual advances, and pornographic content.
CEOP exists to keep children safe from sexual harm or grooming online. They give young people help and advice. You can also make a report directly to them if you’re worried about online sexual abuse or something that’s happened online that’s made you feel unsafe, scared, or worried. Their Child Protection Advisors will try to help you and keep you safe.
If you’re under 18 and a nude image or video of you has been shared online, you can report it to be removed from the internet through Childline’s Report Remove tool.
Take care of yourself
If you’ve seen something distressing online, it’s important that you take care of yourself as well as reporting it
‘In many circumstances, you may feel guilty or ashamed about what you’ve seen,’ says Dr Mitra. ‘But it’s important we don’t blame ourselves and remember that we are often targeted!’
Dr Mitra recognises that ‘Reporting to an official site can be overwhelming’ and that, for some people, ‘it may take time to process what you’ve seen – it can be days before you realise how much a comment, image, or video has distressed you.’
She recommends that young people ‘reach out to trusted adults (parents, carers, maybe other family members or a trusted teacher) to share what they have seen and feelings it may have stirred up for them. Just sharing our feelings can help us manage our emotions before thinking about getting more professional or specialist help if needed’.
Have open conversations
Talking about how you spend time online might feel a bit awkward at first, especially if you’re not used to talking to a trusted adult about it. You might even have to explain things like new apps or games!
But chatting regularly to a parent or carer about your online experiences will make it easier for them to help you if you ever have any worries. It will also help show them that you’re responsible and informed about how to stay safe.
You might also want to talk to the adults who look after you about parental controls. Sometimes they can feel frustrating, but they exist to help keep you safe from distressing content (or people who want to cause harm). You can find out more about parental controls on the NSPCC website.
Other places to talk
If you’re not sure about something you’ve seen online (or want to chat to someone before you tell an adult in your life), there are plenty of people ready to listen to you.
You can always text NATTER to 85258 to text anonymously with a trained volunteer. Find more sources of support on the Get help now page.