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Net Gains? Young people’s digital lives and wellbeing

Our report looks at the evidence on young people’s digital lives, including the impacts of being online and links to wellbeing.

Number of pages:

63 pages

Date published:

Digital inequalities

Most young people take the internet for granted and it is integral to many aspects of their lives as they grow and develop through adolescence.  Digital connectedness supports communication with friends and family, helps with building and maintaining relationships, facilitates education, provides entertainment and can allow a young person to explore their identity.

But the benefits are not shared equally by all young people.  The quality of a young person’s digital life can be impaired by poor digital skills, compromised access to digital devices, insecure connections and a lack of parental support.  Digital inequality among the young is often hidden but it has become more apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic.

digital harms

Young boy in his room on the computer with a desk light on

Digital harm?

Concerns about the potentially negative impacts on young people of being online have been expressed since the inception of the internet and have increased with widespread use – in particular, with the uptake of smartphones.  From worries that spending time online can, in itself, be harmful to the health and happiness of a teenager, to fears that young people will access material that they may find upsetting or which may lead to unwelcome attitudes or behaviour, to anxieties about cyberbullying or exposure to malevolent adults – the potential ‘risks’ for young people from their use of the internet frequently feature in public debate.

digital resilience

Despite extensive research, however, evidence of the scale and magnitude of negative outcomes is limited and less compelling than the headlines may suggest.  Rather than pointing to the internet as a cause of problems, some research suggests that excessive use may be symptomatic of other difficulties in a young person’s life.  It has also been found that harm linked to a young person’s online activity is often related to other factors, for example, how supportive and digitally skilled their parents are.

The importance of developing ‘digital resilience’ among young people – to balance inevitable risk with the benefits of being online – has been advocated for by some commentators, and many argue that there is an urgent need to better protect young people from online harm.

At the same time, it is notable how much less evidence has been generated on the positive aspects of young people’s digital lives and the potential there may be to enhance this – and how rarely young people’s own views have been the focus for research. 

young boy on desktop computer

Promoting online safety for children

Young people should be able to be creative, personal and expressive, without threats from bullies or online groomers. We fight for this right by spreading the word of online safety and working with children at risk of online exploitation.

Parenting and young people’s digital lives

Parenting and young people’s digital lives

Parents have often been treated as being the ‘first line of defence’ against online harm, and research has looked at how they go about supporting their children with their digital lives.  Research suggests that most parents use a variety of approaches (e.g. offering advice and support; using filtering software; monitoring which websites are visited) to manage their child’s time online, and change their approach over time depending on how confident they are in their child’s capabilities and in their own digital skills – although there is also evidence that some parents pay little attention to what their child does online.

young boy playing game with headset

Recent studies

Recent studies have concluded that parents should accept that risk is part of an adolescent’s experience online – not unlike in their life offline – and that actively maintaining a positive relationship and an interest in a young person’s digital life may be key to reducing the likelihood of harmful experiences.

Young people’s digital lives and wellbeing

In our 2020 Good Childhood survey we asked 2,000 10-17 year olds questions about their views on the internet, the impacts that it has on them and their online experiences.  We found that:

  • Most young people were happy about their digital lives – for example, 92% said they ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that they ‘like what I do online.’  At the same time, young people regarded some impacts as being ‘mixed’ (e.g. 39% said this in relation to ‘How you feel about yourself’), and 13% said the impact on school life (your relationship with other children and teachers at school) was ‘mostly negative.’  
  • There were only moderate links between aspects of online and overall happiness – differences in reported life satisfaction were not accounted for by differences in online happiness.

This suggests that there is much more to learn about the complex relationship between a young person’s digital life and their wellbeing.