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Technology use and the mental health of children and young people

“The use of screen time and social media by children and young people has rarely been out of the headlines in recent years.”

These might be our words – after all, we’ve said and written such countless times since beginning our blog – but on this occasion, they’re not.

On this occasion, these words are taken from the introduction to a report, produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and titled Technology Use and the Mental Health of Children and Young People.

The report in question tackles topics that strike clear chords here at CPUK:

• How time online often comes at the expense of that spent engaging in face-to-face interactions with friends and family, or perhaps preventing sleep, exercise or outdoor activity.  

• The risks and dangers posed by exposure to violence, sexual images and hate speech. 

• The prevalence of online bullying, exploitation (often sexual) and the ease with which money can be spent, whether on in-game purchases, gambling or prescription or illegal drugs.

• How those with mental health troubles including anxiety, depression and developmental conditions such as ADHD might be more vulnerable than others online.

• The harmful effect that social media and the internet can have on mood, weight and thoughts of body image, self-harm and suicide.

This last point is put into perspective by the author of the report’s foreword, Ian Russell, founder of the Molly Rose Foundation, whose daughter took her own life, aged 14, in 2017.

In a poignant passage, Mr Russell writes about the ‘wrecking ball of suicide . . . the unimaginable shock and horror . . . [and] the mental anguish’ that Molly had been hiding from the world. 

“I have no doubt that social media helped kill my daughter,” he writes, before sharing the content of a note that Molly left for her family.

“I’m the weird sister, the quiet daughter, depressed friend, lonely classmate,” it reads. “I’m nothing, I’m worthless, I’m numb, I’m lost, I’m weak, I’m gone. I’m sorry. I’ll see you in a little while. I love you all so much. Have a happy life. Stay strong xxx.”

It’s difficult to read, yet also important to do so. 

The paper from which it is drawn isn’t anti-internet in its intent. Here at CPUK, we understand and appreciate the myriad benefits that digital technology has to offer and, as the report notes, “For children and young people there are many positives about these innovations: instant communication from family and friends around the world; the ability to play and be creative; access to high quality information; the ability to socialise in a different environment; and online support for a range of health concerns and identity themes.”

Mr Russell writes about how ‘the World Wide Web provided Molly a virtual sense of community’, yet he also notes that the internet’s ‘escalating dominance isolated her from the real world’ and that ‘the pushy algorithms of social media helped ensure Molly increasingly connected to her digital life while encouraging her to hide her problems from those of us around her, those who could help Molly find the professional care she needed’.

In Molly’s case, there came a tragic end. Mr Russell’s aim, and that of those behind a report that delves into the issues in great depth, is to ensure that others do not follow a similar path.

“Although this task will be challenging, we believe this will be an important first step in our duty of care to our children and a necessary conversation for us as a society,” notes the report’s introduction. Here at CPUK, we couldn’t agree more. 

For us, one point in particular stands out, found in the easy read summary, that ‘whilst evidence for causal links is still developing, there is evidence to suggest that digital technology can effect weight, mood, thoughts of suicide and self-harm and body image’. 

There are innumerable others – including questions around screentime, setting boundaries online, guidance for parents and the potential harms of technology.

Given that a comprehensive report runs to 83 pages, there’s far too much for us to include here. But for anyone interested or affected – be it as a parent, professional or other associated adult – we recommend having a read, even if just through the simplified summary, for the points raised here couldn’t be more pertinent for those responsible for children and their mental health and wellbeing. 

To quote that opening passage once more, the use of screen time and social media by children and young people has rarely been out of the headlines in recent years. Of everything that has been written about it, this might be the most important thing of all for us to read.

RCPSYCH: Technology Use and the Mental Health of Children and Young People.