Violent video games, the sharing of indecent images on mobile phones, and other types of digital communications, are harming young people’s mental health, MPs warned on Wednesday, amid evidence of big increases in self-harm and serious psychological problems among the under-18s.
Cyberbullying and websites advocating anorexia and self-harm are also posing a danger to the mental wellbeing of children and young people, the Commons health select committee says in its report.
Sarah Wollaston, chair of the committee, who was a GP for 24 years before becoming a Tory MP in 2010, said: “In the past if you were being bullied it might just be in the classroom. Now it follows [you] way beyond the walk home from school. It is there all the time. Voluntary bodies have not suggested stopping young people using the internet. But for some young people it’s clearly a new source of stress.”
However, the MPs said they had found no evidence that the emerging digital culture was behind the worrying rise, of up to 25% to 30% a year, in numbers of children and young people seeking treatment for mental health problems.
The cross-party group acknowledges that forms of online and social communication are now central to the lives of under-18s, but says that a government inquiry into the effects is needed because of the potential for harm.
“For today’s children and young people, digital culture and social media are an integral part of life … this has the potential to significantly increase stress and to amplify the effects of bullying,” the committee’s report says.
Some young people experience “bullying, harassment and threats of violence” when online, the MPs say. While they did not look into internet regulation in depth during their six-month inquiry, they concluded: “In our view sufficient concern has been raised to warrant a more detailed consideration of the impact of the internet on children’s and young people’s mental health, and in particular the use of social media and impact of pro-anorexia, self-harm and other inappropriate websites.”
It calls on the Department of Health and NHS England’s joint taskforce, now investigating, alongside bodies such as the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, the mental health of under-18s, to assess the impact of social media.
The MPs appreciate the move for e-safety to be taught at all four education key-stages in England. But they also want the Department for Education, as part of a review of mental health education in schools, to “ensure that links between online safety, cyberbullying, and maintaining and protecting emotional wellbeing and mental health are fully articulated”.
Wollaston voiced concern that “sexting” (sharing indecent photographs) could be traumatic for vulnerable young women persuaded to pose for intimate pictures then finding the shots shared widely. Some would end up being harassed, she said. Sexting had “become normalised in some school environments”, she said. “We need much better education about the dangers of sexting.” She also expressed unease about the impact of violent video games played by young people. Parents, she said, should do more to check what their offspring were doing online in their free time and talk to them because “if they are spending two hours a night doing that, is that harming their child?”
Lucie Russell, director of campaigns and media at the charity Young Minds, said: “The 24/7 online world has the potential to massively increase young people’s stress levels and multiplies the opportunities for them to connect with others in similar distress. Websites like Tumblr, where there has been recent media focus on self-harm blogs, must do all they can to limit triggering content and that which encourages self-harming behaviour.”
Russell backed the committee’s view that the internet could also be “a valuable source of support for children and young people with mental health problems”. But, she added that “many professionals feel completely out of touch with, even intimidated by, social media and the net”.
The report paints a grim picture of the growing number of under-18s needing care, often struggling to access it, or becoming an inpatient hundreds of miles from home, as children’s and adolescents’ mental health services tried to cope with budget cuts, lack of staff and too few beds.
“Major problems” in accessing services ends with “children and young people’s safety being compromised while they wait for a bed to become available”, say the MPs.
Services are under such pressure that in some parts of England children only get seen by a psychiatrist if they have already tried to take their own lives at least once.
Despite growing need, criteria for being referred for NHS treatment have been tightened in most of England, the MPs say.
Liz Myers, a consultant psychiatrist with the Cornwall Partnership NHS foundation trust, told the inquiry that its services for the young were receiving 4,000 referrals a year, though were only commissioned by the NHS to do 2,000.
“This has meant that we are necessarily having to prioritise those who have the most urgent and pressing need, and we have no capacity for earlier intervention and very little capacity for seeing those perhaps with the less life-threatening or urgent risky presentations.
“There are increasing waits. It is not okay. We do not want that for our children and young people, but we have to just keep prioritising.”
Hilary Cass, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said failure to tackle emerging problems with young people’s mental health meant the issue was now “a hidden epidemic”.
What do I think?
I find it sickening that ‘Pro-anorexia’ and self harm websites actually promote a sense of normality in acting on these issues. Countless tips and advice on ‘how to starve yourself without your parents knowing’, and so on. I understand that the point of such websites is to make anorexics, or self harmers, feel belonged in a community that advocates the same intentions as their own. However, if that is the purpose, then surely making one another realise the long term harm they are inflicting upon themselves, and creating a website that promotes togetherness rather than harm, is the answer.
Although, I do think that the internet does have many positive aspects to consider, with helping young people. In a way, the internet encouraged me to get help for my own depression because, unlike schools, the internet actually teaches me a significant amount more about mental health conditions. I was able to distinguish what attributes of mine were depressive, and which ones were just a normal part of human behaviour. Not to mention, the mental health forums and countless discussions on Mind about getting help. I think the internet encourages young people (like myself) to talk about depression. After all, it does affect one in four of us.
I understand that aspects such as porn and cyber-bullying completely demoralize young people (and anyone, for that matter) but all the dark features of the internet simply boil down to the weak security of the website provider. All you need to do is click the box ‘Yes, I am over 18’ and then bob’s your uncle, you have access to porn. And abusive comments on social media sites driving victims to suicide, is again down to weak control over allowing the content online (and of course, the bully). I don’t have an answer for this, or a perfectly feasible solution. I just have a voice, and that is to give every young person their own voice in mental health awareness.