Unhappiness, depression and anxiety are on the rise among young people. Is the internet to blame?
Parents have always had to respond to the world changing around them, and today their worries are often about issues relating to digital technology. Cyberbullying, sexting and online child sexual exploitation all create anxiety about children’s happiness and mental health.
As a whole, young people’s lives seem to be improving. The rate of teen pregnancies is dropping and there’s a decline in drug and alcohol use. But there are also reports of a rise in unhappiness, depression and anxiety, and the behaviours this leads to such as self-harm and eating disorders. It’s difficult to know whether it’s simply that more young people are coming forward, but it does seem that young people are suffering more than ever from mental health problems.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the internet is contributing. For example, a number of viral hashtags have emerged that promote self-harming, such as #cutforzayn which appeared when Zayn Malik left One Direction. There are also a number of photo-sharing sites where young people who are self-harming post images encouraging others to do the same. And a recent poll of 2,000 young people aged 11-21 conducted for Self-Harm Awareness Day showed that 37% had seen an image online that showed someone self-harming. The majority of those said that they found this upsetting.
Many of us have read stories about the organised trolling and bullying of young people by their peers through social media, sometimes with sad consequences. MPs have expressed their alarm at the dangers posed by so-called pro-ana (pro-anorexia) and pro-mia (pro-bulimia) websites, as well as about cyberbullying and sites that promote self-harm.
“A recent poll of 2,000 young people showed that 37% had seen an image online that showed someone self-harming”
And yet, for all the negativity, the internet and social media can also play a positive role in a young person’s life. Keeping in touch with friends or relatives all over the world provides an opportunity to socialise and de-stress. There’s a wealth of information and resources for young people online, providing access to information about sex, drugs, relationships, mental health and wellbeing.
The best of these are created partly by their users, with language and content that doesn’t feel too stuffy and patronising. Good examples include TalktoFrank and Headmeds. The latter has proved hugely popular, featuring no-nonsense information about mental health medication commonly prescribed to adolescents and children, and real-life case studies of young people who have used the medication.
In the last few years, we’ve also seen how social media can act as a catalyst for social change, raising young people’s awareness of particular issues and promoting positive action. Based in the US, the It Gets Better Project, for example, has given young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people all over the world the knowledge to resist harassment and the inspiration to be themselves.
Engaging children in the positive aspects of the internet and guiding them towards its helpful and inspiring resources can go a long way towards guarding against the hazards. At the same time it’s critical to try to limit a child’s exposure to websites that promote dangerous behaviour and compromise their mental health.
There is always a temptation to reduce young people’s freedom and increase monitoring “for their own good” – which often means to allay parents’ own fears. However, banning or dramatically limiting a child’s online time can actually make them more at risk of harm. Ultimately, the key to helping your children have a positive experience of the internet and social media is building their online resilience.
How to build your child’s online resilience
- Remind them that not everything on the internet is true – some content may need to be checked and evaluated with a trusted adult for validity. Encourage them to question and not to take everything at face value.
- Reassure them that life is not measured by how many likes or re-tweets they get.
- Discuss how social media makes them feel and reassure them that if they are being bullied they can confide in you. You can also talk to your child’s school for support with cyberbullying.
- Let them know that if they see something online that bothers them, they should tell a trusted adult and show them the site.
- Reassure them that you love them and are proud of them.
- Remember that worrying behaviour can be short lived. All children go through changes and difficult times, and most will come through with support from their family, friends and (perhaps) online communities.
- If older children don’t want to talk at first, let them know you are concerned about them. Sending a text message as a starting point may work better.
This article first appeared in Vodafone’s Digital Parenting magazine (2015).