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Children, mental health and the internet in 2016

By Geraldine Bedell, Parent Zone editorial director

Our predictions for the hot talking points for the coming year regarding families and the internet

Part 3: Young people’s mental health crisis: is the internet to blame?

In many ways, young people’s lives are improving. Drug taking, smoking and drinking are down; teen pregnancies are at their lowest rate for half a century.

But all the signs are that young people are suffering from a mental health crisis. It seems that the young have never been so unhappy. In new research currently being conducted by Parent Zone, early indications are that 90% of teachers believe that mental health problems among their students are increasing and/or getting more severe.

The government estimates that three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health problem. Depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 75% in the past 25 years. Rates of admission to hospital for self-harming have rocketed.

What has all this got to do with the internet? Well, the first thing to say is that sites and groups online can be a brilliant source of advice for young people with mental health problems. Google ‘teens and mental health’ and it’s likely that everything that comes up on the first page will be some kind of support.

But it can also make things worse. At our Digital Families conference in October, Jamie Bartlett described spending time on pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites, where he found warm and supportive communities that were difficult to leave. The internet can create echo chambers, where we hear more of what we’ve already liked, or what we want to hear. Nowadays, a child who has an eating disorder or who is self-harming will almost certainly be getting support for that (and quite possibly encouraging others) online.

We know from Facebook’s famous happiness experiment, when in June 2012 it monitored the feeds of some of its users, that social media can affect our moods. Early indications from Parent Zone’s current research are that young people believe the internet affects their mental state in a wide variety of ways – from seeing parties they haven’t been invited to at one extreme, to videos of beheadings at the other.

The mental health crisis probably has many causes. Poverty and deprivation are known to be strong risk factors. Young people tell researchers that they worry about employment and the future – and given the prediction that 40% of current jobs will soon be done by robots, that’s hardly surprising. Exam pressure is often blamed: young people can get the impression that they only have one chance, and that a pass or fail now will affect the rest of their lives. A series of recent books has attacked ‘overparenting’ for creating high levels of stress among young people, where parents’ own sense of success and failure depends on how well their kids are doing at school.

We know that cultural factors play a part: the rates of mental disorder in young people of English origin in the UK are four times higher than in those of Indian origin. And recent cross-national research from the US and China showed that there are also protective factors to do with culture and parenting – including a sense of connection to others, low levels of conflict in the home, religious belief and an environment in which the expression of emotions is encouraged.

All this makes the mental health crisis very difficult for parents to deal with, because they can feel responsible. A recent study by the mental health intervention charity Place2Be found that one-third of parents of children aged 5-18 admit they would feel embarrassed if their children wanted counselling in school. At a recent Fixers conference on mental health, I heard young people speaking about not wanting to talk to their parents for fear they would blame themselves.

Parent Zone is holding a conference on mental health in March: we hope to contribute to the discussion on the causes of the crisis and its possible solutions, in particular on the role of the internet. There’s no doubt that online activity can amplify young people’s mental health problems and give them new forms of expression. But the web can also help young people find solutions and support. In the meantime, until we are better at understanding what’s going on, expect lots of fairly lazy blaming of ‘screen time’ and ‘social media’.

Read part 1: privacy and the online world here.
Read part 2: digital literacy here.

Image: R Nial Bradshaw CCBY