As Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood, it’s our responsibility to report on all aspects of childhood health and wellbeing. We act as a critical friend to any government acting in the best interests of our young people. A large focus has been on childhood obesity and its consequences on the child, their immediate family and wider society. While more can still be done for tackling obesity, the government is starting to get the message with their 2016 Child Obesity Strategy and Sugar Tax. Now we’re beginning to look at another prevalent issue: the effect of screen time and social media on a child’s wellbeing.
All too often criticism of a ‘child’s right’ to the internet is at the level of ‘modernisers versus dinosaurs’. People believe today’s children are internet savvy, unlike their fuddy-duddy parents. While we must accept our children are tech savvy, it’s important first to start facilitating healthier ways in which children and young people use screen time, social media and the internet.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is becoming increasingly knowledgeable himself about the unchecked influence of modern screen technology on the health and wellbeing of the younger generation. Most governments (at least initially) favour voluntary rather than statutory routes where possible. However Hunt has found social media companies aren’t too enthusiastic on idea of self regulation. This comes as Minister Liz Truss admitted to the BBC that she locks up her daughter’s phone in an effort to limit her screen time.
Young people who are heavy users of social media are likelier to report poor mental health including psychological distress.
Jeremy Hunt has charged internet industry leaders with ‘turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children being exposed to the harmful emotional side effects of social media prematurely.’ He believes it is ‘morally wrong and deeply unfair to parents who are faced with the invidious choice of allowing children to use platforms they are too young to access, or excluding them from social interaction that often the majority of their peers are engaging in.’
iGeners are facing a severe mental health crisis
It’s undeniable that ‘iGeners’ – young people born around 1995 – are suffering one of the most severe mental health crises for decades. Jean Twenge in her 2017 book ‘IGen – Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy and completely unprepared for adulthood,’ concluded that children and young people face:
- Cyber bullying
- Anxiety about body shape
- Sleep deprivation
- Isolation and increased anxiety
exacerbated by excessive use of the smart phone and dependence on internet technology.
Social media and mental health problems
The Office for National Statistics (2016) found a clear association between longer time spent on social media and mental health problems. Young people who are heavy users of social media are likelier to report poor mental health including psychological distress. Seeing people online leading idealised lives can result in unhelpful comparisons, inadequacy, anxiety, self consciousness, low self esteem and the pursuit of perfectionism. Websites that normalise self harm, eating disorders and the popularity of sites including distressing content such as live streaming of suicides are particularly worrying. Online gaming sites which expose young people to violent and sexualised material are also of deep concern, while cyber bullying can erode young people’s self confidence and self esteem.
The benefits of social connection
These adverse effects of social media use are not the whole story. There are obvious benefits such as forming social connections, seeking support with homework and accessing advice. It is important also to realise that through various platforms, young people, are able to garner a wealth of resource and communication opportunities. Social media can be a very effective platform for positive self expression, and can allow minority groups such as young people who identify as LGBTQ+ to connect with each other and build a sense of community despite geographical separation.
How can we protect our children?
How then can we ensure that our children are best protected to enjoy the bonuses of modern technology? There isn’t a magic bullet but here are some ideas:
- The government must prioritise raising parental awareness of the risks of excessive internet use and ensure that all professionals involved with children and families are best equipped to convey this message from antenatal care onwards
- The national curriculum should include digital literacy, citizenship and resilience with age-appropriate curriculum content which focuses on developing these skills. App providers should embed safety features from the outset to prevent children’s exposure to harmful content
- The digital industry must have a duty to report and remove abuse within strict timescales, suspend the social media accounts of perpetrators and interrupt the user’s experience in response to inappropriate searches
- The government should promote greater opportunities for physical activity both in school and the wider community (thought to lead to a reduction in child mental health problems)
- Policy and guidance in this area must be owned and overseen by the Department of Health, not the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport or Department of Education.
READ MORE: How To Build Your Child’s Digital Resilience
These thoughts do not represent a complete answer. They do however offer an important first start in facilitating healthier ways in which children and young people use screen time, social media and the internet. Of course we want our children to be ‘cool and savvy’ but first and foremost safe!