Skills for the Job: Discussing social media in PSHE

Personal, social and health education lessons are ideal for discussing the opportunities and pitfalls presented by social media.

What are the risks posed by social media?

Pupils are well versed in password security and the risks posed by online grooming; but we also need to be aware of the broader risks to pupils online.

Increased social media use can lead to poorer physical wellbeing as young people miss out on sleep or exercise and overuse can lead to increasing isolation from family or friends, with some young people leading their lives increasingly online.

Social media also poses a significant risk to young people's self-esteem and body confidence as they compare themselves to carefully chosen and crafted status updates of models and celebrities, as well as those posted by their friends.

Vulnerable young people may also get drawn into networks that promote risky behaviour such as pro-anorexia and self-harm sites, or those promoting radical or extremist views.

How can PSHE help address these issues?

There are a range of ways that personal, social and health education (PSHE) lessons can help pupils to keep themselves emotionally and mentally safer when engaging online. These include:

  • Healthy Relationships Positive offline work about the development of healthy relationships such as informed seeking of consent and recognising and responding to abuse and bullying, can sometimes fail to be consistently applied to the online world. Many pupils will no longer differentiate between those friends they see face-to-face daily and those who live on another continent and they've never met - so whenever you are teaching about healthy relationships, consider the question: "How could this be applied in an online context?"
  • Self-esteem Self-esteem can plummet when we spend time online comparing ourselves to others, both in terms of physical appearance and our daily activities and achievements. Those young people most vulnerable to issues such as depression are found to spend more time online comparing themselves to others. Directly addressing this with pupils can be very effective, so too can adding a focus on building self-esteem and self-confidence more broadly into the school curriculum. Resources such as the Dove Self-Esteem Project ( can help promote pupils' wellbeing and resilience both online and offline.
  • Physical wellbeing Educating pupils about the clear links between physical and mental wellbeing and enabling them to apply these within the context of lives that are digital-heavy can be effective. Many have no grasp of the potential harm that lost sleep, in particular, can have on their emotional health.

How can pupils help shape PSHE lessons?

Providing pupils with an opportunity to anonymously put forward questions or suggestions to address in class can help educators to tailor content. Engaging older pupils to work with young pupils can also be incredibly effective when well supported.

Are there ways of testing effectiveness?

It's important to remember that lessons should be about developing skills and understanding rather than simply imparting knowledge - pupils must be able to apply what they've learnt to an ever-evolving online world.

A good sign of an effective approach is if educators themselves are learning with and from pupils as well as teaching them; an environment where pupils ask questions and seek support where needed and are actively critical consumers of both online and offline content is healthy and effective.


  • Social media is not a standalone topic but an ongoing theme. Throughout PSHE teaching, ask "how would this apply online?"
  • Consider the pros as well as the cons of the online world or pupils will disengage
  • Review your content and understanding often - perhaps using pupil champions - as things move quickly and it's important to address what's current
  • Teach pupils about safe sources of online support

By Dr Pooky Knightsmith, director, children and young people's programme, the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust and emotional health adviser, the PSHE Association

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