Thousands of teenagers spending more than eight hours a day online at weekends, Ofcom figures show

Charles Hymas
Figures show 6% of children aged 12 to 15 are spending the majority of their time at the weekend online. -  John Stillwell/PA

Duty of Care banner ad

More than 150,000 younger teenagers are spending over eight hours a day online at weekends, according to an official breakdown of young “extreme” users.

Amid mounting concern over the potential impact of screen time on rising mental ill health among the young, new figures from Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, show some 6% of children aged 12 to 15 are devoting the majority of their waking time at the weekend to online activities.

A further tenth of teenagers (11%) are spending between five and eight hours a day online at the weekend, equivalent to about 300,000 children.

The proportions fall during the week when the children are at school but 1%, equivalent to some 28,000 children, are still spending more than eight hours a day online, 4% more than six hours and 11% between four and eight hours, equivalent to more than 300,000 pupils.

The start of secondary school at 11 is seen as the point when most children become more active on social media but the figures show increasing numbers of heavy users of digital technology from as young as three or four.

Social media websites such as Facebook and Instagram are popular with young teenagers. Credit: Chesnot/Getty Images Europe

One in 20 children (5%) aged three or four spend over three hours a day online at weekends, while one in five (20%) spend between one and four hours a day online during the week, equivalent to 280,000 children. Last week The Daily Telegraph revealed one in four children under four own a tablet.

Among five to seven-year-olds, 3%, equivalent to some 60,000 children, spend more than five hours a day online during the weekend, while double that proportion spend between four and seven hours online.

By the time they reach their final years of primary school, almost one in ten (9%) spend more than five hours a day online at the weekend, equivalent to more than 250,000 children. Some 3% spend more than six hours online.

The figures which cover all online activity from social media to homework follow evidence from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) of a “clear association” between the longer time spent online and mental health issues. The OECD found young “extreme” users who spent over six hours a day online on a weekend were less happy with their lives.

Almost one in ten of children spend more than five hours a day online at the weekend by the time they reach their final years of primary school. Credit: Peter Byrne/PA

Last week the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health told MPs on the science and technology committee there is an urgent need for in-depth research to establish if increased time online is responsible for the rise in mental ill health among the young.

Dr Max Davie, a College health promotion officer, accused social media companies of withholding vast troves of data on user behaviour, including time spent online, which could be shared with researchers.

He said: "Facebook has data. Twitter has data. They're not sharing that data with researchers... they're sucking data from all of us, and they should be sharing it for the public good."

The Daily Telegraph is campaigning for a statutory duty of care on social media and gaming firms to protect children from harm online. In its written evidence to the Commons science and technology committee, the royal college has also backed new laws to keep the tech firms in check.

Duty of Care campaign | Read more

In the past month, Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS, has warned the NHS is “picking up the pieces” of an epidemic of mental illness among children, fuelled by social media, and pledged to “ramp up” mental health care to cope with it.

The government and information commissioner are drawing up proposals for statutory codes that could impose curbs on the “compulsive” techniques used by the social media and gaming firms to keep children online such as switching off night-time notifications and video auto-play.

The average time spent online for all children, aged five to 15, is 2hrs 54mins a day at the weekend, and 1hr 54mins during the week. It is almost double what it was a decade ago.

However, it masks big variations with 11% classed as “extreme” users, spending more than five hours a day online at the weekend, and 3% more than eight hours a day, equivalent to more than 200,000 children aged 5-15.

Research by UCL found teenage girls who had spent more than an hour a day on social media from the age of 10 were more likely to suffer emotional and social problems. Boys who tended to play more video games were less affected.

Professor Yvonne Kelly, who led the UCL study, believed some form of enforced time limits on usage was needed given the increasing evidence that heavy use was linked to mental ill health: “The companies have a big part to play in this as they have very sophisticated ways of getting all of us to use their application. I would not put it all at the parents’ door.”