Kids’ mental health risk as they sign up for social aged 12

18 July 2019 . United Kingdom

The average child now starts their life on social media at age 12 but a new study shows that signing up early increases the chances of suffering from mental ill-health.
  • Average child creates first social media account aged 12, breaching media platform guidelines
  • But the earlier they start, the more severe the mental health impact, research shows
  • Anxiety, stress and self-esteem all impacted by use of social media
  • Sheffield, Birmingham and Plymouth seeing higher levels of teen unhappiness in nationwide study

Teenage girls on phone

In a landmark annual index by Bupa UK into the mental wellbeing of teens, early access to social platforms (before the age limit) has been shown to correlate with greater levels of anxiousness, low self-esteem, irritability, continuous low mood, insomnia, depression and feeling overwhelmed.1

Of the negative mental health symptoms highlighted, irritability and low self-esteem are most strongly connected to earlier use of social media, and all main recognised mental ill-health symptoms are significantly more common among teenage social media users compared to non-users.

This is worrying for parents, given the first social accounts are opened at age 12 on average, with nearly one in five (18%) starting at age 10 or earlier. Nearly half of all teens using social media admitted to lying about their age to create a social profile and more than a quarter (27%) have an account their parents don’t know about, according to the research.

This latest study backs up findings released in February this year by University College London, which linked social media to mental ill-health in teens. Most recently the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, said social media gave teenagers a “warped view” of real life.

The report also outlined stark geographical differences in teens’ mental resilience, with those from Sheffield, Birmingham and Plymouth reporting significantly higher levels of unhappiness than average.2 Teenage girls were also much more likely to be unhappy compared to male teens and older teens (16-19) were nearly twice as likely to feel this way than their younger counterparts (13-15).3

The study also found some surprising reasons why social media was putting such pressure on teens, beyond the well-understood ‘compare and despair’ behaviour amongst peers. More than half of teens (53%) said that social media distracted them from schoolwork or revision, potentially leading to amplified anxiety about their academic performance, which incidentally is the thing teens are most likely to get stressed or anxious about (47%). Three quarters of teens (73%) also think that people ‘act fake’ on social channels.

Positively, a great many teenagers did report that they’d identified the impact of social media on their mental wellbeing and had taken steps as a result (74%). Half of teens (48%) have blocked specific people from their social media accounts for the good of their mental health, nearly a third (31%) have increased their privacy settings and one in four (25%) have taken a break from social or done a ‘digital detox’.

To help parents navigate the complexity of children’s mental wellbeing, Bupa has published a guide for parents and offers Mental Health Direct Access, 4 a service where parents can call to speak to a mental health specialist without the need of a GP referral.

In recognition of the nature of mental health conditions, Bupa has also recently extended the benefits of its mental health cover for individuals and their families. Unlike other leading health insurers, who place a time limit on cover for mental health conditions, Bupa provides ongoing support and treatment. That means, for as long as customers have the cover, if their condition comes back or a new one develops, Bupa will support them.5 This makes it the most comprehensive UK domestic health insurance cover for mental health, compared with other major consumer health insurers.

Dr. Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK, says: “It’s really tough for parents these days to protect their child from things that could harm their mental health. Even restricting ‘screen time’ or specific social media might not be enough, and our findings suggest some social platforms can significantly drive up anxiety and stress, especially if the child starts on them at a young age.

“Despite the stereotype, teens really judge themselves on their academic performance, but social can promote procrastination, which amplifies this stress and worries around grades. We’ve produced a guide for parents to learn more, but we know that for a child struggling with poor mental health, an early diagnosis and fast access to support can help aid their recovery and the long-term management of their condition.

“Our new, best-ever mental health cover is designed for individuals and their families, ensuring that they can receive the support they need, when they need it.”

Notes to editor

1 In the poll of 2,000 teens, they were asked if they experienced any of the following symptoms to the point that ‘they have an impact on your day-to-day life’: Continuous low mood or sadness, Low self esteem, Anxiousness or worrying , feeling overwhelmed with fear, Insomnia, Irritability or having a short temper, Feeling hopeless, Feelings of sadness or being depressed, Feeling overwhelmed, Loneliness. These were cross-referenced against the age at which that teen first started using social media, as well as looking at rates among non-social users. Six out of 10 symptoms were strongly correlated (R-squared 0.7 or greater) with early social media use (R-squared values in brackets): Irritability (0.96), Low self-esteem (0.95), feeling overwhelmed (0.88), Anxiousness (0.73), low mood (0.73), insomnia (0.72). Two showed weaker correlations: sense of dread/fear (0.64) and depression (0.32). No correlation present in two symptoms: Hopelessness and loneliness.

In ALL cases, teens not using social showed lower significantly lower rates of suffering all ten symptoms. 

2 Top 10 cities for teen unhappiness (those who say they feel unhappy all or most of the time)


% of teens who are unhappy








































Research conducted among 2,000 13-19 year olds by Opinium Research, online between 12-20 June 2019.

3 26% of teenagers aged 16-19 reported being unhappy all or most of the time in the last two weeks, compared to 16% of 13-15 year olds.

4 Bupa’s Mental Health Direct Access offers fast access to a specialist without the need for a GP referral and is available to customers aged 18+.

5 Support is for all new customers and renewing customers where they have mental health cover, provided within members’ individual mental health benefit limits.

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