Is the electronic age damaging young people’s mental health?

By Dr Caroline Harris, Chartered Clinical Psychologist, BSc, DClinPsychol.

As a Clinical Psychologist, I’m often asked whether I think the digital age is damaging young people’s mental health. It’s a question I often look to find updated clinical evidence for. Clinically, I have an opinion and I see its impact (both positive and negative) on a daily basis, but this is an area still growing in its knowledge and understanding.

For now intervention focusses on a model of psycho-education for young people and their families and for all professionals working with or having contact with young people. Within this comes education of preparedness and risk which needs to be repeated, consistent and supportive.

Government launches enquiry into the impact of social media and screen use

With growing awareness of the impact of social media and other digital influences on children and young people – and not least their mental health, it comes as no surprise that in February of this year the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry into the impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health.

This inquiry is still ongoing. They are next due to receive evidence on the 16th October 2018 with representatives from Facebook, Google UK and Twitter. In July they heard from young people themselves nominated by organisations such as Barnardo’s, Kidscape and the National Children’s Bureau.

Professionals like myself are hoping that at least some concrete recommendations or guidelines are produced from this inquiry and at best they are the instigation of new legislation. Not least for our own children, but also as a means to support parents and teachers when working with children and young people with mental health problems. Certainly legislation enforcing age restrictions on social media apps would help.

Bullying, sleep problems and anxiety

Whilst referrals to mental health services (child and adult) may not cite ‘social media’ as the key presenting issue, it does play a huge part for many of the young people being referred with mental health issues.

From clinical experience I see it playing a big role in established problems such as bullying, sleep issues, anxiety, low mood and in some cases it is the cause. Not least the accessibility of such technology plays a key factor, bringing bullying into the bedroom, bringing social peer pressure to night times and increasing triggers for anxiety. However, I also see its benefits. Keeping up connections with parents when separated, allowing young people (especially boys/young men) to have some social contact with like-minded people through gaming and helping monitor symptoms.

YoungMinds study finds room for improvement

A 2018 study by Young Minds has found a number of key areas to be addressed, and proposes a new approach to protecting children online. Their key findings were:-

  1. Children and young people’s use of the internet and social media has significantly increased over the past decade.
  2. Young people consistently say that the digital world offers positive social and emotional benefits.
  3. Digital connectivity can lead to an additional risk of experiencing social, physical, psychological or emotional harm, although these challenges are not always recognised by young people themselves.
  4. In response to greater awareness of these risks, most social media platforms have introduced blocking, private view, and reporting functions.
  5. Despite these responses children and young people’s mental health is being compromised.
  6. In addition to raising awareness about online risks and increasing online protection, we need to support young people to build their own digital skills and resilience, so they can navigate online worlds for themselves.
  7. To build children’s digital resilience we need to bring together the expertise of industry, schools, the charity sector and Government.

My experience indicates young people know the risks but never think it’s going to happen to them. They do not know their own vulnerability.

Carers can help by encouraging open communication and checking the devices. Once this is set as a child there is an increased chance that this will carry into their young adulthood, just like healthy eating.

A unified approach is needed, and consistent, repeated communication from an early age will help professionals working with children and young people with mental health problems and in supporting families and other services.

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