40.Social media was identified as a particular factor which witnesses told us can have an adverse effect on young people’s mental health. 66% of respondents to the survey run by YoungMinds for the Committee’s inquiry said that they were concerned about the effect of social media on young people’s mental health, compared to just 14% who were not concerned.
41.The 2014 Health Behaviours of School-Aged Children (HBSC) survey of 11, 13, and 15 year olds found that 18% of young people reported having experienced cyberbullying in the past two months. The second wave of the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England 2, in 2014, found that 11% of 15 year olds had experienced cyberbullying. The NSPCC told us in written evidence that in 2015–16, there were more than 11,000 Childline counselling sessions relating to online sexual abuse, cyber-bullying and internet safety, which was a 9% increase on the previous year.
42.However, despite the negative effects that social media and technology can have on the mental health of young people, we heard in our evidence that it can also have a beneficial effect for young people. Emily Frith, Director of Mental Health, Education Policy Institute, told us that
It is important to recognise that there are some positives about young people’s online lives. Young people access Childline online now rather than phoning the number. There are lots of ways young people can support each other through social media, particularly if they have a rare condition. Being able to connect with other young people with the same set of experiences online has been shown to be really supportive.
43.Sarah Brennan raised the issue of the physical effects of social media and technology on young people:
Building digital resilience so that it becomes a normality is something we have to get our heads around. It is here to stay and it will only increase. It is about what happens online, but it is also about the physical effects of young people using social media into the night—the impact of a blue screen on sleep and the impact of lack of sleep on mood and depression. There is a very physical impact in using social media.
44.Minister Timpson recognised that there is more that could be done to provide guidance to parents on sleep deprivation and the effect of social media and technology on young people’s well-being:
There are a number of opportunities to look more closely at the issue of sleep deprivation and the interlinking that that has with the changing relationship that children have with the internet; so, absolutely, it is something we want to address.
45.Witnesses were clear that the responsibility for dealing with the social media problem does not solely lie with schools. Nevertheless we heard examples of the kinds of action that schools are taking to address the issue of social media. Baroness Tyler told us “there are some things [ … ] that are within the power of schools” and that
One head teacher I was talking to yesterday [ … ] said that he has banned mobile phones so that the children cannot use their mobile phones at all during the course of the day, just as one way of getting away from that sort of abuse and focusing continuously on the screen and all of that.
46.However our evidence was clear that the key way to deal with social media is by “equipping young people with how to manage the difficulties of modern life”. Dr Peter Hindley told us that
It is about helping children and young people to learn how to make wise choices, because social media is an intimate part of children and young people’s lives and in some circumstances can be very helpful. In other circumstances, it can be damaging. [ … ] It goes back to our earlier discussion about the importance of PSHE and helping children learn to assess risks and work out how best to manage risk rather than thinking that we can remove this risk from young people’s lives.
47.We recommend that schools should include education on social media as part of PSHE, including educating children on how to assess and manage the risks of social media and providing them with the skills and ability to make wiser and more informed choices about their use of social media.
48.However we recognise that schools and colleges have limited opportunity to deal with the broader issue of children’s use of technology and it is not always most appropriate for them to do so. There is a key role for parents in ensuring that children’s use of social media and the internet is not having an adverse effect on their well-being. It is therefore encouraging that the Government plans to bring forward a range of resources to support parents as well as teachers. Baroness Tyler, referring to earlier comments from her fellow witness Natasha Devon, who works with teens in schools on mental health, body image and self-esteem, told us that
Technology is moving on at such a pace that [ … ] many parents do not feel very well equipped to know what is going on and how best to support their children. If there was more of the specialist expertise that Natasha was talking about in schools, schools would be very well advised to try to be passing some of that on to parents in simple ways, you know, tips about how to help in managing their child’s use of social media and what the pitfalls are.
49.Natasha Devon described the importance of ensuring that parents and teachers have up to date knowledge:
There is, in my experience, a gap in understanding between young people and their parents and teachers, and the technology is developing faster than we can measure the psychological impact. I think last year there was quite an extensive report published on the impact on self-esteem of Facebook use, but teenagers are not on Facebook anymore; they have moved on to Instagram and Snapchat, and that is part of the problem.
50.We recommend that the Government should encourage schools to share details of PSHE and other specialist expertise and knowledge, including relevant online support, with parents to increase awareness of what their children will be taught at school about social media. This should include guidance on the effects of sleep deprivation on children and young people’s well-being and mental health. Parents have a key role to play in limiting screen time, reducing sleep deprivation and preventing exposure to harmful online activity.
51.Social media organisations and providers also have a responsibility to tackle the issues caused by social media. Edward Timpson referred to the UKCCIS (United Kingdom Council for Child Internet Safety) board,
where Ministers from the Department for Education, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Home Office, together with internet service providers, the Internet Watch Foundation, CEOP and other charities working in the sector, all come together to try to come up with ways of tackling these issues in a self-regulatory way. That is what led to the change, for instance, on parental controls, having them in place on all public wi-fi, and other measures that we have put in place that would not have happened without that co-ordination. So there is a forum to try to talk about where that responsibility lies.
There is no doubt that, as we get a greater insight into what social media does to children, both in a positive and negative way, we respond not just through Government wielding a stick but by those who are the instigators of either the material or the conduit for it, as well as those who promote it and advertise it, taking their responsibility seriously and working with us so that we come up with the right solutions.
52.We urge the Government to continue the work that is being done by the United Kingdom Council for Child Internet Safety and to take steps to ensure that social media organisations and internet providers prioritise child internet safety and dealing with cyber-bullying. These organisations and providers must not be allowed to duck their own responsibility for preventing harm to children and young people.
49 YoungMinds () para 6.2
50 Department for Education and Department of Health ()
52 NSPCC ()
59 Q87 [Nicola Blackwood]
28 April 2017