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Life is digital by default – what’s the impact on young people’s mental health?

An online webinar brought together leading clinical and academic experts to discuss the impact in the rise of technology on the mental health of children and young people.

An online webinar brought together leading clinical and academic experts to discuss the impact in the rise of technology on the mental health of children and young people. This event, which was chaired by Middlesex University Criminologist Dr Elena Martellozzo, was organised by the UK Council for Internet Safety Evidence Group (UKCIS) and supported by the UKRI Mental Health Network (eNurture) and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

 “The last decade has seen a startling level of technological innovation,” said Professor Sonia Livingstone OBE, eNurture Network Deputy Director.

 “We’ve moved, I’d suggest, from seeing technology as a valued addition to our lives, to seeing technology as its vital infrastructure and as COVID-19 has made that really clear now, for young people especially, life is digital by default.”

As technology becomes a crucial part of our everyday, what is the impact on the mental health of children and young people? The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have seen children and young people off school for large periods and spending even more time online, either learning, playing or socialising.

“Being online can be a hugely positive experience for adults, children and young people, however it is also presents a risk of harm and there is growing concern about the relationship between technology and the mental health of children and young people,” explained Rachel Bishop, the Deputy Director of Online Harms Policy at DCMS.

“The pandemic has brought this into sharp focus with children’s screen time averaging nine hours per day during lockdown which is nearly double the average prior to COVID-19 (according to the Pandemic Parenting Report).

A study by Ofcom has found that children were lacking structure and routine, and were instead spending a large amount of time online often unsupervised. While screen based online platforms can support learning, social networks and reduce feelings of loneliness, they can also impact mood, self-esteem and body image as a result of extended or prolonged time engaged with screens.”

Image of a small child light up by a blue screen in bed with parents who are in the dark

Mental health crisis among young people

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, Chair of Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Royal College of Psychiatrists presented some insightful data on the mental health crisis among young people in the United Kingdom. She argues that this is rising significantly alongside the growing reliance on technology.

In 2020, one in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a probable mental disorder increasing from one in nine (10.8%) in 2017, according to The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020 report. The increase was evident in boys and girls. The rate has risen in boys aged 5 to 16 from 11.4% in 2017 to 16.7% in July 2020 and in girls from 10.3% to 15.2% over the same time period.

Negative impact of social media

The Good Childhood report, 2020 concluded that among 24 countries reviewed UK adolescence between 10 and 15 years are doing least well. The NHS Digital Prevalence Survey, 2018 of children aged 11 to 19 showed those with disorders were much more impacted by social media.

For example nearly 42% with mental health disorders compared to 25% without compared themselves to others; 27.2% with disorders compared to nearly 14% without admitted that likes, shares and people’s comments affected their mood; 66.6% with disorders compared to 52.8% without spent more time than they meant to online.

Children and young people with mental health problems are often turning for help because of content on social media.

Victoria Hornby, CEO of Mental Health Innovations which runs the 24-7 crisis helpline Shout, said suicide deaths of celebrities “spark anxiety among young people” so they share support services. “Within 15 minutes of the death of Caroline Flack we were beginning to see a significant increase in volume on our platform,” she argued.

The National Suicide Study in children and young people also found teenagers in particular were “more profoundly affected” by suicide related internet use.

Too much screen time can damage development

The negative impact of too much screen time on young people’s development has also been well documented.  The review paper the Online Brain, How the Internet maybe changing your cognition concluded “excessive Internet use impairs brain and verbal development”, “mass acceptable/rejection/social comparisons affects self-esteem” and “media multi-tasking affects attention and memory”.

The World Health Organisation recommends limiting screen time for children aged one to four to one hour per day, stating the “potential benefit of reducing sedentary screen time outweighs the possible harms/costs & may increase health equity”.

This may seem extreme but technological use starts at a very early age. A third of patients referred to NHS England’s National Centre for Gaming Disorders started gaming aged six years or younger, according to its founder Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, OBE. She said many of the patients were “very thin or obese”, with “poor eating habits, self-care and little exercise”, and suffered from loss self-esteem, social anxiety, low mood, poor regulation of boredom and attachment issues, with gaming providing “escapism, connection, communication and acceptance, achievement”.

“Half of the children turned violent, sometimes very violent when things were taken away which stopped them from gaming, in some families the police were called 20 or 30 times. I had underestimated the terrible impact on families,” said Dr Bowden-Jones.

What happens next?

What can be done to tackle the detrimental effect of too much screen time and technology on the mental health and wellbeing and children and their families?

Rachel Bishop of DCMS said its plans for online harms legislation will ensure companies are more “responsible for people’s safety online, especially children” alongside the Government will publish its response shortly to the white paper – the Adult Online Hate, Harassment and Abuse assessment – with legislation following next year, which will be accompanied by non-legislative initiatives including a media literacy strategy and safety by design framework.

To the question  If there was one thing that you would change about the digital world, what would that be? posed by Dr Graham Richard, Psychiatrist & Clinical Director, Good Thinking, Dr Dubicka answered:

“Global togetherness on technology, regulation, safety and responsibility from the tech companies, as we have seen for climate change.”

Research and guidance is essential

Victoria Hornby also provided an insightful response: “We need to have much clearer signposting of safe sources for help. We have young people who regularly contact us saying ‘I did an online quiz to see if I have depression or an eating disorder’ and the random searching with completely unfiltered content can be damaging for children.”

Literacy on the impact of technology on mental health is crucial. “The digital world will not go away and it’s only when we get guidance and knowledge which helps parents, professionals and young people directly, that we will advance this whole debate,” commented Professor Gordon Harold, Professor of the Psychology of Education and Mental Health at the University of Cambridge and eNurture Director.

Further research into the impact of technology on mental health is also essential. The Nurture Network (eNurture) is a UKRI funded programme, which supported this event and has seven associated networks, is funding start up research projects and practical interventions designed to examine how the digital world is changing and its impact on young people.

The academic and clinical experts all agree that there must be an onus on technological companies as well to address concerns about the impact of their technology on young people’s mental health.

Dr Mark Griffiths, the Director of the International Gaming Unit at Nottingham Trent University, said structural characteristic such as the ‘Like’ button on social media or the event frequency in gambling, are really important in determining whether someone will have a problem.  

“If you’ve got a product and you know a small minority of your clientele are going to have a problem with it, you have to take responsibility,” argued Dr Griffiths.

“The great thing about technology, is we can actually harness that technology to help treat those people who unfortunately do suffer from problematic or addictive behaviours.”

Written by Paul Harper, Middlesex University Press Officer, and Elena Martellozzo, Middlesex University Criminologist.

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