Pause before you post: social media, literacy and wellbeing

10 Feb 2020
Girl & boy using tablet

This Safer Internet Day, Research Manager Irene Picton shares her experience of working with University College London (UCL) and young people to explore social media, literacy and wellbeing.

In the not-so-distant past, you might have no idea what your friends were up to for hours or even days at a time. Catching up on news and gossip between school or work depended on making a call over a landline (often with little privacy, at least in my house)! Now, in the age of the smartphone, the constant opportunity to read, write and share posts on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and WhatsApp can feel like being in any number of endless conversations, with friends and strangers alike.

The positives and negatives of these ‘always on’ forms of communication are well-debated, and an increasing amount of guidance on a safe and informed use of social media is available for parents, teachers and young people (we’ve listed lots of great resources at the end of this blog).

UCL social media presentation

However, alongside awareness of the potential harms of the online world, young people must also consider how best to present themselves to, and interact with, others in this virtual space. In the absence of critical digital literacy skills, judging the right tone and content of a post or message is often learned the hard way – as many in the public eye know all too well.

Concern about the impact of social media on young people’s mental and physical wellbeing has grown in recent years, as some studies have found that those who spend longer online are also more likely to report poorer mental health.

For example, using data from more than 10,000 14-year-olds in the UK Millennium Cohort Study, research carried out by Professor Yvonne Kelly and her team at UCL, found that those who spent more than 3 hours a day on social media scored higher for depressive symptoms than those with 1 to 3 hours’ use. Furthermore, researchers found a greater association between longer use of social media and these symptoms in girls compared with boys.

Our own research for our Fake News and Critical Literacy Commission highlighted the need to better support young people’s critical literacy skills when navigating the online world, while our literacy and wellbeing research found that children and young people most engaged with literacy have better wellbeing than their less engaged peers.

We were therefore grateful to join forces with UCL’s Professor Kelly and her fantastic team to gather some more qualitative data on the subject and to hear the opinions and experiences of young people directly.

The event was generously hosted by Renaissance Learning. Students from three local secondary schools (Bishop Challoner’s Girls School, The John Roan School and The Royal Docks Academy) were invited to take part and, on a sunny summer’s day, 50 young people joined us for a morning of debate and discussion.

The UCL team got things started by presenting participants with a variety of statements about the potential role of social media in their lives, inviting them to ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’, and be ready to share their reasons for their opinion.

Research found that the quality of interactions on social media and their impact on mental health can be beneficial or detrimental depending (at least partly) on whether they are positive (e.g. supporting social connectedness) or negative (e.g. encouraging social comparisons).

It was therefore heartening to hear students’ assertions that it was important for their younger peers to not feel that they had to “look a certain way”, and enlightening to hear how some said it was important to consider that those posting negative statements online were “probably unhappy themselves”.

The UCL team then shared some of the evidence base around the impact of social media and mental health with young people, including the gender differences found in UCL’s research.

UCL social media infographic

Having learned more about the potential impact of social media on everything from sleep to self-esteem, students then produced their own ‘public health’ style information posters. There were some great reflections included in these – we all loved the alliteration of ‘pause before you post’ and its recognition of the personal steps we can take to make social media a better place.

UCL social media posters

After saying goodbye to the schools, we were able to reflect on how, alongside efforts made by policymakers and technology companies, we might best help teachers, children and young people in navigating these new digital environments in a way that supports their wellbeing.

You can also hear more about the workshop session, including the young people’s voices, in a fascinating short Lifecourse podcast created by the UCL team. In addition, the experience even caused PhD student Emma Walker to reflect on her own social media use in her excellent blog.

To mark Safer Internet Day, we have also produced an engaging free-to-download classroom activity based on the event to prompt discussion about the positive and negative effects of social media.


Tuesday 11 February 2020 is Safer Internet Day.

More resources