THE BLOG

The Internet Should Be a Positive, Not a Negative, for Young People's Mental Health

03/03/2016 11:21 GMT | Updated 03/03/2017 10:12 GMT

Digital media and intense interaction online are facts of everyday life for today's young people in a way that my generation - brought up without the internet - sometimes find hard to comprehend. The difference between the real and the virtual seem increasingly blurred. One in three of all internet users in the world today are estimated to be below the age of 18. As early as 2010, according to a London School of Economics report, most British 9-16 year olds were going online at least once a day.

There are risks to this, but there are many opportunities too. As a revealing new report from the charity Young Minds makes clear, in tackling the challenges of child mental health, the internet should be at least as much a part of the solution as it is a part of the problem. So we need to ensure that we fully understand the nature of the risks and benefits of the internet, acting to reduce the former and maximise the latter.

Online grooming and bullying are well-documented challenges. Some children with mental health problems related to self-image can have their conditions exacerbated by the so-called Dark Net of websites that promote eating disorders, suicide and self-harm. One in five young people say they have shared personal information and photos with someone they only know online. This can make the internet seem a scary place to parents, but there is a real danger that what rightly scares parents is being normalised for young people. But clearly a ban on the internet for young people is not feasible. It is not desirable, either, because actually the internet can - and should - be an ally against poor mental health: four in five young adults aged 16-24 believe that digital technology plays a positive role in their relationships, for example.

There needs to be two streams of action: firstly, there needs to be immediate support, and signposts to support, for children who have had a mental health problem triggered by something online; secondly, over a longer term, we need to be building resilience in young people so that triggering events are diminished and more effectively self-managed, or managed with the help of supportive peers and members of the family. In short, we need to help young people with their mental health and help them to help themselves with their mental health.

For example, Young Minds argues that existing self-led digital tools that young people use to manage their mental health could also be used to promote resilience-building. This might involve including a new module on impulsive behaviour and sexual image-taking on health-related apps.

Young Minds also suggests developing new online solutions that enable young people to build and maintain informed communities of peer support and peer education aimed at preventing mental health challenges and promoting digital resilience. An option for the digital industry might be to target supportive or signposting messages to a child's smartphone if they trigger a concern because of the timespan of their social media use or because of the frequency with which they refresh for new content (obsessive behaviour perhaps linked to anxiety issues).

There is a role for Government, too, and the current Government certainly has focused on mental health to an unprecedented degree. The Prime Minister's personal commitment to improving support and reducing stigma is helping to drive the public policy agenda. The Five Year Forward View For Mental Health, published this month by the independent Mental Health Taskforce to the NHS in England makes clear recommendations for prevention and quality care. Local implementation and initiatives are important too. In Macclesfield, the constituency I represent, there is great work underway with an emotionally healthy schools initiative. This involves educating the school as a whole in personal resilience and peer-to-peer support, identifying the early indicators of emotional distress to look out for, and engaging parents. This supports mental health offline as well as on.

Good mental health is as important as good physical health and we owe it to our young people to see that support is available them. We need to accept that children and young people like to be online and use that as an opportunity to harness the power of the internet to identify and address problem behaviours. As Young Minds suggests, we can productively use online solutions that help young people find help, help themselves and help each other.