THE BLOG

Young People's Mental Health: Social Media has a Social Responsibility

07/01/2016 11:21 GMT | Updated 06/01/2017 10:12 GMT

It is generally agreed that for many years mental health has been treated as a Cinderella service within the NHS. There is growing recognition that this situation can and must change, and - critically - real action has been taken to address the problem, with £600m of new money committed in the Spending Review. But we must also recognise that there are new challenges to address, particularly for young people, not least from social media.

Every year, ten or so sixth formers from the Macclesfield constituency travel down to Westminster for a Parliamentary Induction Day. I am always impressed by these groups of interested, engaged, hardworking pupils. But not so long ago, in a lull in the question and answer session, I asked one particular group what they felt were the biggest issues facing them and their peers. I anticipated that they would focus on getting to University or the cost of funding a place there, but instead they all said in unison: "mental health"!

I found that staggering and deeply concerning. When I was at school, admittedly many years ago, I barely knew what "mental health" was - we didn't talk about those things then. That was not the best approach. However, for some it will be tempting to shake a sage head at today's young people and say: "in my day..."

But this is not our day. As the excellent charity Young Minds has made clear, young people today face pressures we never envisioned. Social media and mobile technology has brought unimaginable access to knowledge, but it has also brought pressures - unrelenting pressures - that were once just the stuff of nightmares. They face new pressures about body image and new forms of bullying. Leaving the school gates no longer means leaving an argument. A weekend is not always the welcome break it has previously been.

Clearly, the challenge of young people's mental health is increasing. In discussions with Cheshire and Wirral Partnership Trust, my local mental health service provider, they estimate that referrals have gone up by 25 per cent in just the last couple of years. There is also clearly growing awareness of the issues relating to mental health - in adults as well as children and young people - and that is a good thing. But, it is also very clear that social media amplifies these challenges.

That's why it is right to go on finding better, more effective ways of helping young people and their families face these challenges. And that means pressing new media providers to face up to their social responsibilities.

I am proud to have been a member of the Parliamentary Inquiry into protecting children online in the previous Parliament. Positive progress has been made in this area. But I hope that more can now be done and my aspiration is that social media, or at least some new, directly relevant apps, can be developed to help young people who are linked so closely to it. These challenges may seem to relate to a parallel, virtual world to older observers, but to those caught up with them they are just as real as bricks and mortar.

So, to those who have brought us the likes of Assassin's Creed, I would ask if they can use some of their undoubted creativity to find ways - digital approaches, algorithms, signposts, whatever it might be - to help young people feel more comfortable about who they are and more confident about their place in both the real and digital space. Other industries are responding to public concerns; we know, for example, that responsible operators in the alcohol industry and the gambling industry have provided welcome funding for - and signposts to - Alcohol Aware and Gamble Aware. We all need to work together to reverse these concerning trends in young people's mental health. The industry needs to step up to the plate - it is an urgent priority.