At this time of year, Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs) in schools up and down the country are wondering what challenges will be faced over the coming school year, and how best we can actively tackle these issues and make a positive difference.

DSLs are all hoping that the long awaited, and even longer delayed Online Safety Bill will soon be introduced. It is extraordinary to think that if you were born after 1995 you won’t be aware of a world before the internet, or being connected via a smart phone. Social media is likely to be high on all agendas for PSHE in schools. 

The top two online activities for young people are watching videos and using messaging apps

Today on World Mental Health Day, it is hard not to reflect on the tragic death of Molly Russell, and how social media was so influential in her death, and to think about the risks associated with social media and what more can be done. The content available to Molly should not have been viewed by a 14-year-old; she had seen a large amount of content which depicted and glamourised suicide and self-harm, which the coroner ruled had a direct impact in her death. Findings from Internet Matters showed that the top two online activities for young people are watching videos, using apps like TikTok and using messaging apps, for example Snap Chat. The use of these apps has steadily increased and the use of these platforms are likely to continue to grow; inevitably, as more and more celebrities and influencers upload, more and more young people will be drawn to them. Social media is designed to hold our attention for as long as possible; young people who are often more vulnerable and may fear rejection or seek a desire for validation are more likely to view content which has a negative influence on their mental health and wellbeing.  It feels that children’s safety is a secondary thought for tech companies when money-making commercial decisions are made.

Often, messages are long forgotten by the author, but the effects of the unkindness long felt by the victim

Online bullying is now more common that face-to-face bullying. Many young people do not realise or have not conceived that their behaviour online is unkind or even amounts to bullying. Young people often use messaging apps to communicate, making jokes and comments with little thought or insight into how the message might be received by the recipient. Peers can take advantage of insecurities, while hurtful words, memes and images can be shared with the tap of a smart phone.  Often, messages are long forgotten by the author, but the effects of the unkindness long felt by the victim.

It is hoped the Online Safety Bill will help in making young people safer online.

The Online Safety Bill is the answer and through it we will use the full force of the law to make social media firms protect young people from horrendous pro-suicide material.

Michelle Donelan, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The Online Safety Bill will certainly mean social media companies will face harsher rules, and will be expected to tackle not only illegal but also harmful content, as well as misinformation and cyberbullying.   

However, even when the Online Safety Bill is finally passed, there will be a lot of risk and dangers for young people unlikely to be included in the legislation and there will be a continued and important role for educators and parents to keep young people safe online. It will be vital that children and teenagers are provided with the skills and knowledge they need to make use of social media, apps and the online world safely.

According to a report released in 2021 by Common Sense Media on media’s effects on teens, about half of the 1,500 young people surveyed said social media is very important for them in order to get support and advice, feel less alone, and express themselves creatively, as well as for staying in touch with friends.  Building positive and healthy social media habits are crucial to avoiding potential mental health risks, and balancing time spent online with real face-to-face contact with family in friends is vital.