The impact of technology on children’s digital wellbeing

Parents and children (vulnerable and non-vulnerable) experience the impacts on wellbeing

In our Children’s Wellbeing in a Digital World Index Report 2022, we assessed the impact of digital technology on the wellbeing of children and young people. Our research revealed interesting aspects of digital participation in the modern UK home.

Children’s Wellbeing in a Digital World 2022 Index Report

We learned that as children get older and spend more time with digital technology, they experience more of the positives as well as the negatives. The report also demonstrated the potential wellbeing outcomes of excessive social media usage and gaming.

Additionally, and fundamentally, it reinforced the point that vulnerable children experience greater impact from participation in the digital space.

Ahead of the launch of the 2023 Index, we conducted additional research with parents of children aged 4-16 and children (aged 9-16). We looked at subjects that impact children’s digital lives, including a focus on wellbeing. Here we examine how this further builds the picture of children’s wellbeing in a digital world.

Index Report 2022

Key findings in our additional research

Parents who feel confident in online safety are more likely to believe digital technology impacts children's wellbeing in a positive way

Over the past two years, positivity towards children’s usage of the internet has increased, particularly from fathers. Positivity grows amongst dads and mums when they have greater understanding about how to keep their children safe online.

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Parents are more likely than their children to perceive negative impacts on their children's emotions

Children feel more positive about being online compared to their parents. As expected, parents have greater concerns about possible dangers. This was particularly true for parents of boys, who show greater concerns. However, they also recognise the benefits more than parents of girls.

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Vulnerable children have more upsetting experiences online compared to non-vulnerable children

Vulnerable children enjoy as many positives as those without vulnerabilities. However, those classed with a vulnerability were more likely to experience more of the negative aspects of being online. When speaking with parents of vulnerable children, those most affected were under 10s, and late teens (14-16).

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Parental confidence in online safety

When asked about the overall impact of digital technology on their children’s wellbeing, parents were mostly supportive. When speaking directly to parents, we see growth in that positivity over time.

Digital wellbeing insights into parental confidence over time (for both vulnerable and non-vulnerable children)

Table 1. Taking all things into consideration, do you think [child’s name]’s experience and use of technology and the internet has positive or negative impact on their overall wellbeing? c. N-2,000 parents per wave.

Differences in positivity levels between parents

Parents of younger children (4-8 years old) were less positive about digital technology (59% net positivity) than parents of older children (62%, 15-16 years old). This suggests the benefits of being online increase as children get older.

Fathers (67%) were significantly more positive than mothers (54%) about the impact of digital technology usage amongst their children. This may link to dads feeling more confident in knowing how to keep their children safe online. For instance, 80% of fathers felt confident about how to do this vs. 74% of mothers.

When we look at those ‘confident’ mums and dads, both were significantly more positive towards internet usage overall. The gap between them was also smaller – 84% of dads feel positive about the internet’s impact on their children’s wellbeing vs. 81% of mums.

Conclusion

We can conclude that with increased understanding and confidence, parents acknowledge and appreciate the benefits of digital technology for their children more so than parents lacking that confidence.

Helping parents learn how to keep their children safe online may support parents in understanding the aspects of the digital world, which enhance wellbeing. As such, the potential for children accessing these elements also increases.

Parents see greater emotional impacts than children

We asked parents to reflect on what being online does to children’s wellbeing, asking children the same for themselves. There was an interesting split in the interpretation about being online. As expected, parents were more likely to show concern about their children’s usage of the internet compared to children themselves.

The starkest difference was around ‘feeling sad’ – a complex emotion that around a third of parents (31%) link to their children’s online use. However, less than one in five children (18%) share this view.

Digital wellbeing insights showing parents perceive more negative emotional impacts than children (both vulnerable and non-vulnerable)

Table 2 Thinking about how being online and access to digital technologies impacts your child/children’s/your own wellbeing, when your child/children goes online, does it do any of these things? Taken from June-22 wave; Parents N-2,001 (‘Yes, definitely’, ‘Yes, mostly’ excluding ‘a mix’ responses to make comparable with Children responses), Children N-1,000 (‘Yes, definitely’, ‘Yes, mostly’)

Positive versus negative impacts

The positive impact of the internet comes through more than negative impacts for both parents and children. ‘Feeling happy’ was the most selected option for both parents (80%) and children (89%). Also, ‘showing things they are proud of’ was widely agreed with (63% parents, 72% children).

Parents with greater confidence in online safety have greater positive responses to the internet as well. For example, 84% of confident parents acknowledge the internet makes their children ‘feel happy’ compared to 72% of parents who lack confidence.

This is also true of the more negative traits. For example, 38% of confident parents say the internet makes their children ‘feel sad’. However, just 18% of unconfident parents say the same.

Parents of boys versus parents of girls

Additionally, parents of boys were more likely to identify the positive impact of the internet when compared to parents of girls. This includes feelings of feeling happy, proud and confident. Also, parents of older teen boys (15-16) were significantly more positive that the internet made their sons more confident (48% vs. 42% overall).

Digital wellbeing insights showing the difference between boys and girls in parent confidence

Table 3. Thinking about how being online and access to digital technologies impacts your child/children’s wellbeing, when your child/children goes online, does it do any of these things? Taken from June-22 wave; Total – all parents N-2,000. Boy, 11 and under N-771, Boy, 12-14 N-340, Boy, 15-16 N-308, Girl, 11 and under N-627, Girl, 12-14 N-297, Girl, 15-16 N-286. Bold indicates significant difference against the Total score.

However, parents of boys were also more negative about the internet’s impact, counteracting this positivity. Parents of 12–14 year old boys in particular scored higher across all the negative issues (i.e., body shape, jealousy, worried about looks and feeling sad).

This correlates with the lower levels of confidence in staying safe online for this group. Just 35% of 12-14 year old boys feel ‘very’ or ‘totally’ confident in staying safe online, compared to 39% for girls aged 12-14 and 48% for 15-16 year old boys.

Parents of girls aged 12-14 had similar concerns to parents of boys of the same age. Parents of younger girls (<11) were generally less critical about the role of the internet on their children. For instance, they scored lower on the negative impacts of jealousy (23%, 27% total) and feeling sad (21% vs. 25%).

Children’s responses

Children were asked the same set of questions about the impact of the internet on their wellbeing, but the difference between genders was less obvious. The only significant differences between genders were seen in ‘makes you feel confident’ (71% amongst boys, 64% for girls) and in ‘makes you feel worried about how you look’ – this time lower for boys (22%) compared to girls (31%).

Similarly, when split by age, the only significant differences were in impacts more associated with older teens. These included ‘worried about how you look’ (24% for under 13s and 31% for 14–16-year-olds) and in ‘worried about body shape or size’ (22% for under 13s, 30% for 14-16).

Vulnerable children more significantly impacted

When looking at digital wellbeing of children more broadly, we can see a familiar pattern of those children with a vulnerability. Generally, they experience more of the negative aspects of being online. This results in some of the starkest differences seen between segments in the dataset.

Insights showing the impacts on vulnerable children's wellbeing

Table 4. Digital Wellbeing index measures asked in June-22 children’s tracker. Bold figures show the significantly higher score compared to the total. Vulnerable N-202, Non-vulnerable N-805. Full descriptions for each dimension in the Appendix.

Impacts across developmental, emotional, physical and social wellbeing

When assessing the social aspect of children’s wellbeing, we used the statement ‘having upsetting experiences interacting with other people online (e.g., bullying)’.

We can see that nearly half of children (49%) with a vulnerability experienced this (‘all the time’, ‘quite a lot’). This is compared to just one in five of children without any vulnerabilities. Similarly large differences were seen between vulnerable and non-vulnerable in ‘unenjoyable repetitive digital behaviours’ (73% to 52%; Developmental) and ‘seeing upsetting things online’ (54% to 28%; Emotional).

However, the positive scores across the digital wellbeing areas were not significantly lower for those classed as vulnerable. In fact, in some cases the score was higher. For example, 83% of vulnerable children agreed with ‘[the internet] helps me to revise or learn things for school’ in developmental compared to 77% of non-vulnerable children. Again, this shows that this group of children had similar levels of positive experiences as their non-vulnerable peers.

Varying results in vulnerable children of different ages

When we looked at parent scores of vulnerable and non-vulnerable children, the results were even more noteworthy. Parents of vulnerable children scored significantly higher for all measures — both positive and negative ones — compared to parents of non-vulnerable children.

When looking at the breakdown of the ages of the vulnerable children, we can see interesting differences.

Vulnerable children's wellbeing levels differ by age as shown in these insights

Table 5. Digital Wellbeing index measures asked in June-22 parent’s tracker. Bold figures show the significantly higher scores against the total. Parents of vulnerable children N-797; 4-10 n-394, 11-13 n-208, 14-16 n-195.

Generally, parents of vulnerable children aged 11-13 have the lowest scores amongst the age ranges. Although still significantly higher than non-vulnerable children, parents of this age group saw less of the positives and negatives of the internet for the children compared to parents of older and younger vulnerable children.

The other age groups have more varied responses. Some measures being more age specific than others may explain this. ‘Stopped physical activity as wanted to play on games / watch TV’ may be higher for those aged 14-16 (73%) compared to under 10s (69%) because media and internet consumption levels differ significantly between these age groups.

However, being bullied online may be a greater concern for parents of younger children (43%) compared to older children (39%) where maturity levels and greater support networks exist.

Conclusion

Vulnerable children and their parents recognise that their status puts them at greater risk of some of the negative aspects of being online. Due to the varied responses by parents of vulnerable children, tailored age-specific guidance is needed for this group. This will ensure that vulnerable children get the best out of digital and have the correct support in place when bad experiences occur.

Inclusive Digital Safety hub

Children’s Wellbeing in a Digital World 2023

We will continue to measure and track the important factors that help us better understand the impact of digital on children’s wellbeing. Our second annual report on Children’s Wellbeing in a Digital World will be released in January 2023.

Appendix

Methodologies from research sources

  • Parent tracker: N-2,000 UK parents of children aged 4-16 years old
  • Children tracker – N-1,000 9–16-year-olds representative of the UK
  • Both surveys are conducted twice per year
Changing conversations

Vulnerable children's wellbeing can be supported by changing conversations around online use

Guidance to empower vulnerable children in a digital world

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