Our response to the Science and Technology Committee’s Impact of Social Media and Screen-use on Young People’s Health report

31st Jan 2019
Prevention resources and tools
Online safety

Responding to the Science and Technology Committee’s Impact of Social Media and Screen-use on Young People’s Health report, Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said:

“We know that children are increasingly connecting with the world through digital media and, as this report shows, it can be difficult to keep children safe and healthy online. We welcome many of the recommendations made by the Committee, including the proposal for legislation to recognise that social media companies have a duty of care to children and young people.

"It is extremely important that harmful content, content that promotes suicidal ideation, or links suicide with self-harm, is removed as effectively as possible. Evidence shows that exposure to content relating to suicide methods, or which romanticises suicide, can be extremely harmful. There is also the possibility that unsupported discussion between individuals following a suicide or suicide attempt can lead to a contagion effect which increases the risk of further suicides.

“We also know that technology has played a huge role in enabling young people to share their authentic experiences of mental ill health and increasing social connection for isolated groups - and that it’s possible to use digital tools in a mentally healthy way. The evidence in this area is not as robust as it should be - though strides are being made.

“We need more, and better research to quantify and add context on the risks, understand the positives, and determine what works to prevent our online lives causing distress or suicide. This needs the collaboration of all sectors including social media firms, academia, charities, young people and parents.

“It is good to see that the Committee acknowledges the important role of education in building a better awareness of the harms and benefits of digital media. We fully support the recommendation that PSHE education must be made mandatory by the Government and should include age-appropriate lessons on digital activity.

"Finally, parents have a very important role in helping to balance children’s offline and online life, and support good ‘digital citizenship’ in online relationships and behaviour. As highlighted by the Committee, there is a lack of guidance available for parents, and we have produced guidance to help to fill this gap.”

We have created guidelines for parents on children’s internet use: how to minimize the negative impact, while encouraging healthy use to maximize the benefits.

Tips for talking to your children about healthy internet use:

  1. Remember: the internet isn’t all bad. Research shows there are many benefits to young people going online. From connecting with friends and relatives to following piano lessons or researching homework, it provides a wealth of opportunities for education and enrichment. Find out what your children are using and focus on positives. 
  2. An internet ban is rarely helpful. This is almost impossible when access is so widely available. It is also likely to be counter-productive, encouraging secretive rather than open use as well as denying the many benefits the internet has to offer.
  3. Be age-appropriate. All the suggestions below need to be age-adapted. Young children usually like attention from you and don’t own their own device, whereas teenagers may find it intrusive and stick to their own screens. Balance respecting their desire for privacy with letting them know you’re there for them to talk to. With younger children, also use your devices’ parental controls. Whatever their age, agree any restrictions together.
  4. Keep talking. Being open to discuss things in an age-appropriate way is key to helping them stay safe. It ensures your children can come to you if they are worried about their online activity or something they have seen, and vice versa.
  5. Use the internet alongside your child. When you go online with your child it encourages social rather than isolated use and provides opportunities to discuss staying safe online. Show a respectful interest in what they are doing, even if they want to use the internet independently.
  6. Promote good sleep habits. Encourage everyone to turn off their screens at least 1 hour before bedtime. Leave phones, laptops etc. out of the bedroom and buy a separate alarm clock to wake up to. Don’t forget it helps to lead by example!
  7. Encourage active rather than passive use. Being actively involved in doing things, such as creating or responding to Facebook posts, can have a positive impact on wellbeing. Passive use – like scrolling without interacting – can lower wellbeing and life satisfaction.
  8. Break the ‘filter bubbles’. Online companies use algorithms to show you things similar to what you’ve seen before, reinforcing current interests rather than suggesting new topics. Teach your child how to interrupt these by searching new areas or questions of interest.
  9. Talk to your child about body image. It can be difficult for children (and adults) to distinguish between what’s a healthy body image and what’s not. Try to normalise diversity – we all come in different shapes and sizes, there isn’t one ideal body shape, and beauty comes in many different forms not just airbrushed or filtered ‘perfection’. For example, if you  watch a program together you can point out things that are unrealistic.
  10. Promote healthy sexual attitudes. Difficult though it is to speak to your child about sex, it’s important they don’t get all their information from the internet as this can lead to distorted expectations. If you see something obviously unrealistic, make sure they know it!
  11. Look out for warning signs. If you notice a change in your child’s behaviour, like spending lots more time alone in their room, avoiding friends, or a shift in their mood, speak to them about your concerns. Make sure you both know what help is out there (on- and off-line) and seek advice from your school or GP if you need extra support.

Download the full guide 'Talking to your children about healthy internet use'

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