Children aged five and under are at risk of becoming addicted to the internet, a leading charity warns.
A report by Barnado's has shared the concerns of support workers regarding the emotional development of very young children when they interact with social media.
The data found that more than 60 per cent of professionals who have dealt with vulnerable children indicated they were worried about under-fives using social networks, not only because of exposure to inappropriate content but also how it may affect their communication skills.
The report’s findings were based on testimony from 80 support workers who work with under-18s at 30 Barnardo’s projects across the UK.
As well as concerns for children aged five and under, the report also suggests that platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter are having a “disturbing” impact on the mental health of under-18s.
“Worries regarding addiction and the substitution of time spent with family for the use of social media were issues that were felt to cause problems related to mental health and emotional wellbeing in this age group,” the report said.
“Key apprehensions included the failure to think creatively, interact with others socially and manage their own emotions.”
Half of the support workers surveyed said that 78 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds had been exposed to unsuitable or harmful content online.
The same age group also reported prominent incidents of cyberbullying (80 per cent), sharing of personal content (87 per cent), online grooming (78 per cent) and family tensions due to social media use (78 per cent) in the last six months.
Furthermore, 58 per cent of support workers said they had seen a growing number of cases of self-harm and attempted suicide linked to cyberbullying in children aged 16 or over.
“Although the internet offers incredible opportunities to learn and play, it also carries serious new risks from cyberbullying to online grooming,” said Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo's.
“And, as our new report shows, these risks can have a devastating impact on the lives of the UK's most vulnerable children.”
Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chairwoman of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the findings reflect what she sees on the front line every week.
“The levels of self-harm and suicide attempts following cyberbullying found in this report are deeply concerning and is another wake-up call for social media companies to do more to protect young people online,” Dubicka said.
The chairwoman also called on the government to deliver additional funding needed to increase the mental health workforce and improve services for children and young people.
As a result of its findings, the charity has also prompted the government to do more to make the internet a safer space for children.
Concerns come after the Government published a White Paper on online harms, proposing strict new rules be introduced that require firms to take responsibility for their users and their safety, as well as the content that appears on their services.
Child sexual abuse and exploitation, harassment, cyberstalking, and hate crime are among a list of areas the government wants to be legally overseen by an independent regulator, after deciding that social networks and web giants can no longer be relied on to self-regulate.
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The report from Barnado’s follows similar research from Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, which found that around one in four children have experienced a form of online abuse in the past 12 months.
Almost 80 per cent of the 1,000 children surveyed said they had a “potentially harmful online experience” in the past year – the majority of which – 24 per cent – occurred on Facebook, with 12 per cent taking place on Instagram and eight per cent on Snapchat.