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Mental health in the digital age: what now for the perfect generation?

With Mental Health Awareness day on 10 October, Eleanor Levy looks at how policy makers and professionals have responded to the challenges of supporting children and young people since Parent Zone’s 2016 research into young people, mental health and the internet


When Parent Zone published our report, The Perfect Generation: Is the internet undermining young people's mental health?, in March 2016, the issue of children and young people’s wellbeing was just beginning to attract mainstream media attention.

Campaigner Natasha Devon had been appointed the government’s schools’ mental health champion the previous summer, and barely a day went by without a story of how our young people were being let down by inadequate CAMHS provision/support in schools, or studies into how the digital world was adversely affecting them.

While those reports sometimes made depressing or frustrating reading, at least the issue was now on the news agenda – a sign that maybe things would begin to change.

Within months, Devon had been removed from her post – a freedom of information request following her departure showed her Department for Education employers had not been happy with her criticism of government policy – but by now, at least the government was acknowledging the scale of the problem.

Theresa May used her first speech as prime minister to highlight the issue of young people’s mental health, announcing a green paper on the issue. It promised to include more support for schools, including the following pledge:

‘Every secondary school in the country to be offered mental health first aid training and new trials to look at how to strengthen the links between schools and local NHS mental health staff. There will also be a major thematic review of children and adolescent mental health services across the country, led by the Care Quality Commission, to identify what is working and what is not and a new green paper on children and young people’s mental health to set out plans to transform services in schools, universities and for families.’

Even with events somewhat overtaking her, and subsequent political manoeuvrings meaning the Prime Minister probably has had other things on her mind, the green paper is still officially due this autumn, and parents and professionals will be awaiting it with interest.

So, where are we now?

Parent Zone’s 2016 survey looked primarily at the effects of social media and the online world on children and young people.

Report author Rachel Rosen spoke to pupils and teachers about the effects social media and other online services were having on those who have grown up in a digital world.

She found that children in the UK were facing pressures from a number of factors, including the race to achieve certain grades at school, or the need to present a particular persona on social media. Meanwhile, teachers told her they lacked resources to deal with the fall out, leaving staff frustrated and pupils vulnerable.

The research also showed a marked difference in perception regarding the extent young people’s issues were being caused by the internet. Nearly half (44%) of teachers said the internet was bad for young people’s mental health, compared to just 28% of the young people we spoke to.

18 months on, those issues haven’t gone away.

If anything, the area has grown more complicated, with conflicting research, regular scare stories in the media, online and off, and occasional heated arguments between academics debating the effects, or otherwise, of the online world on young people’s offline mental wellbeing.

A ‘monstrous microscope’ 

Earlier this year, a Guardian opinion piece concluded: ‘The digital age is as harsh to children as it is to their parents: social media can act as a monstrous microscope under which the kind of blunder or embarrassment that would once have been confined to a group in the school playground can be replayed and deconstructed by anyone on Snapchat or Instagram. Anonymity is a cover for the deliberately cruel and the merely unthinking alike.’

It’s very easy to blame social media for the reported increase in mental health issues among young people, particularly as its perceived rise has coincided with worrying figures about the number of children seeking help.

The sad fact is, there are multiple reasons why young people experience fear, depression, anger or loneliness in the UK in 2017: student debt, the turbulent state of the world presented every day on the news; families struggling financially; bullying; pressure at school, from SATS through GCSEs to gaining the grades they need to get to university; the kind of general body image issues that have always accompanied puberty; falling out with friends.

None of these are caused by social media (Mean Girls, after all, came out two years before Facebook launched to the general public), but all these issues can be amplified by it.

Growing backlash?

Much has been made of the addictive nature of online life, whether it’s hours spent playing the new FIFA18, compulsively pouting for the perfect Instagram selfie or the general fear of missing out that both old and young experience when they put down their smartphones.

A number of former employers of some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are now warning the rest of us about the compulsive nature of the platforms they helped build. (There’s a reason why that next episode of Stranger Things plays automatically on Netflix without you asking it to.)

Meanwhile, there appears to be something of a backlash among young people themselves over the platforms they regularly use, with a September 2017 survey of 5000 pupils finding that almost two thirds of them wouldn’t mind if social media had never been invented[1] and new research from Parent Zone, due out this week, showing that over a third (37%) of respondents thought their parents let them use social media too young.[2]

Long-term goals

The fact is, though, that social media and the internet have been invented and they aren't going away anytime soon. As Rachel Rosen concluded in her report, we need to find 21st century solutions to easing the pressure on the next generation.

Ultimately, it will take a combination of creative thinking and practical help to improve the mental health of children and young people.

With an estimated 10% of children between five and 16 having a clinically diagnosed mental health condition[3] (around three in every UK class), whatever measures the government green paper announces when it eventually appears will have to focus on prevention as well as ‘cure.’

Ideas, including training teaching assistants to support children in class [assuming there are any left, following recent cuts to schools budgets in some areas], a mental health professional in every secondary school, and the inclusion of wellbeing in the curriculum, may help, but they can’t happen in isolation. Work to lessen the damaging effects on self-esteem and body image of young people attempting to live up to Instagram perfection has already begun.

Certainly, funding will need to be addressed.

A disturbing article in the TES recently claimed: ‘Stretched children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) are driving growing numbers of pupils to make what look like suicide attempts just so they can have their mental illness treated.

‘Rebecca Beatty* [not her real name], head of a secondary in south-west England, said that three pupils in her school alone have made apparent suicide attempts to ensure that they would be seen by CAMHS professionals.’

If true, this is a horrifying indictment of youth mental health services in the UK today. 

In a political climate obsessed with short-termism, it would make a refreshing change for a joined-up policy, working towards a long-term goal.

As Theresa May herself has acknowledged, addressing the issues in children now will mean happier, healthier adults in the future. But let's not wait too long.


Further reading:


[1] Digital Awareness UK and the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), 2017

[2]< Parenting in the Digital Age: How Are We Doing? Parent Zone survey of 1000 UK 12-16-yearolds, September 2017.

Parenting in the Digital Age: how are we doing?