Expert view

Dr Rachel O'Connell

Dr Rachel O’Connell is an internet safety expert and principal author of a guide for online mental health providers entitled Delivering Mental Health Services Online: Risk Awareness and Management Programme. Rachel advises the UK Government on the issue of online age verification for children and young people

Health and wellbeing Q&A 

Dr Rachel O’Connell answers Digital Parenting’s questions about health and wellbeing services online and highlights the importance of sifting good advice from bad.

Physical and emotional changes during childhood and adolescence can be confusing and difficult – for young people and their families alike.

As a parent, I understand how important it is to keep a close eye on a child’s health and wellbeing and to be prepared for some tricky questions, as well as to be willing to offer proactive advice. And, as a professional specialising in social media and young people, I see first-hand the impact that the internet is having on teenagers when it comes to their emotional wellbeing – often positive, sometimes not.

For families of children with eating disorders, depression or other mental health problems, such as self-harm, it can be particularly challenging because many young people are turning to the Web for answers to extremely complex questions. While the internet provides a place where families can find lots of excellent guidance from health professionals and other people in similar circumstances, there is also a lot of unreliable and harmful information and advice published online.


Q: What kind of websites are young people visiting to find answers to questions about their health and wellbeing?


A: The internet can be a useful resource for teenagers wishing to better understand the physical and emotional changes that are taking place and niggling concerns about what is normal.

Young people often seek help, support and a feeling of community with other young people who are also coping with challenging issues. This may, for example, involve looking at videos about managing eating disorders on YouTube or chatting in an online forum about coping with feelings of distress and sadness.

Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies series – particularly the programmes aimed at children and young people – are valuable online resources for both parents and teenagers.

With research findings indicating that one in ten young people in the UK has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, it’s important that parents are aware of the various mental health organisations that are accessible online, such as Big White Wall, Beat, ChildLine and Young Minds.



Q: What are the potential risks that children and teenagers might face if they go online for information and support about health and wellbeing issues?


A: Mental health professionals express concerns about websites where, in the absence of trained professionals, children and young people interact in ways that may be harmful to a vulnerable person. For example, a teenager may be encouraged by others in an online group to post pictures that illustrate self-harming behaviours.



Q: How would you advise parents to start a conversation with their child about online peer support and the potential for being given unreliable information?


A:It can be really challenging but it’s important to have a balanced and considered response to your child’s online activities, particularly during difficult times. Even if your instinct is to intervene immediately and try to stop them visiting websites you’re worried about, that might not be the best plan of action.

Engaging in a discussion with your son or daughter about their online activities is usually a better way to go. It’s important that you try not to start with the assumption that all online interactions with other young people about challenging issues are necessarily harmful. This is likely to cause additional tension within the family and could result in your child withdrawing from discussing things with you and being less open about their online and offline activities.

You can seek professional advice and guidance both from your GP and online, and encourage your child to be honest and open about both the positive and possibly negative things they have encountered on the internet.



Q: Can parents and young people be confident that information they submit on self-help sites will remain confidential?


A: To help protect the privacy and confidentiality of people seeking support online, a number of mental health providers offer avatars and pseudonyms so that users can be anonymous when interacting with others. You should review the Privacy Policy and Terms of Service on any website you use so that you know what privacy provisions are in place.



Q: Does the NHS provide any online help for parents and young people?


A: NHS Direct has a helpful ‘symptom checker’ to help you understand the nature of the issue you or your child could be facing. The NHS may advise you to contact your GP who may suggest that counselling could help your family.



Q: Would you recommend any particular websites that parents could direct their child to if they need help with health and wellbeing issues?


A: Youth Access is the largest provider of young people’s advice and counselling services in the UK and you’ll also find useful resources for teenagers on the Teen Issues website.

With respect to helping your child manage issues like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety, autism, behaviour problems, bullying, depression, eating disorders, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and substance misuse, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) website is a good starting point.



Q: Where can parents find information about therapists and counsellors?


A: You can search for a therapist on the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy website or the New Savoy Partnership website.

An accreditation system for online mental health services is currently being developed and you should soon be able to identify reputable mental health providers by the RAMP logo.