Chloe is 18 and in her first year at a campus university in the East of England. She has settled in well, is enjoying her course, and is excited about the new independence away from her parents. She has a brand-new laptop and smartphone for her new chapter at university and has access to high-speed Wi-Fi across the campus. Being part of the LGBTQ+ community, Chloe belongs to a lot of online groups that celebrate and discuss issues related to gender and sexuality. Anyone who meets Chloe may think she seems happy and carefree, however, inside, she is struggling to connect with new people that have similar interests.
Despite Chloe’s ability to connect with people in-person who are just a few feet away, she is beginning to feel increasingly isolated, missing real-world interaction from her friends back home. Chloe prefers to go online for her main emotional connections, to contact her old friends and to connect with new people that have similar interests to her. She is not alone in feeling this way – the internet is an important way in which young people choose to connect with their friends, with 55% messaging friends and family via online methods, along with 49% playing online games, and 48% browsing posts, videos, and images from others.
Unlike many others, Chloe has the most up-to-date devices and feels like she takes the necessary precautions by using the right tools and settings to keep herself safe from harmful material online. Despite this, she is still finding herself exposed to upsetting content on social media. She has experienced significant online abuse from others, either directly or to people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, and she is increasingly receiving unwarranted sexual messages and requests for sexual images from people she doesn’t know via TikTok, SnapChat, and Instagram. This is seriously taking a toll on Chloe’s mental wellbeing. In Chloe’s age group, 32% of 17–19-year-olds feel a similar way that the internet has a negative impact on their mental health.
Chloe feels comfortable enough to talk about these issues to her best friends, but she hides them from her parents. There are many people who feel the same as Chloe that more needs to be done to support young people to receive the right emotional and pastoral support to face these challenges, and in a way that they feel comfortable to do so. There is also the need for stronger inbuilt safeguards on the platforms young people are using to, in Chloe’s case, reduce the number of unsolicited messages she is receiving. There should be a way for this to be implemented without Chloe having to adjust all the settings herself, some of which she may not even fully understand what she is opting in/out of.
Stories such as Chloe’s highlight that when it comes to young people’s online safety those who face the most risks online often rely most online for support. This illustrates the need to understand the unique circumstances young people face and adapt support accordingly – there is no one size fits all. Having the latest technology and skills alone are not enough to mitigate encountering of upsetting content online. Check out the 2021 Digital Youth Index report and custom data visualisation tool for further insights around young people and those who are most at risk in this digital world.