Social media and mental health

Experts say review of children's social media use must include technical issues and access to education.

The government has announced it is to hold a review into the impact that excessive social media use can have on children's mental health.

Making the announcement recently, Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned that social media has the potential to be as harmful to children's mental health as sugar is to their physical health.

"Overwhelmingly, technology is a force for good, but we are seeing more and more evidence that children using social media for hours on end each day is having a detrimental impact on their mental health," Hancock said.

The review, to be undertaken by chief medical officer for England Dame Sally Davies, will publish interim findings by the end of the year (see box) in advance of the government launching an online awareness-raising campaign for parents in 2019.

The Department of Health and Social Care cites evidence that children who spend more than three hours a day using social media are twice as likely to report high scores for mental ill health.

Here, a market research agency that recently undertook a study on young people's use of social media analyses the key messages from its research, while the children's commissioner for England outlines the changes that policymakers need to make.

Rebecca Evans, director of research and impact, Revealing Reality:

Is social media a public health issue? Yes, but our qualitative research into children's use of social media highlights that efforts to address its harms need to go beyond "health" guidance on screen-time limits to include effective communication of digital literacy by teachers and parents.

Our Life in Likes research for the children's commissioner for England found that while eight- to 10-year-olds generally use social media to have fun, once they start secondary school, their use changes dramatically. Many Year 7 children find social media hard to manage, seeking validation through "likes" and becoming anxious about their online image.

Similarly, annual research for Ofcom has found that while some social media trends are passing fads - for example, the widespread enthusiasm for ‘Snapchat streaks' last year - there are also longer-term changes in behaviour.

A narrow focus on social media is unlikely to address all the problems people are concerned about. Policymakers need to consider children's engagement with content more widely, and the ways in which the device they are using shapes their behaviour.

The way smartphones are designed influences the way they are used and dictates the interface with services accessed through them - and this point is often lost in the wider debate about who is to "blame" for social media's ills, or what should be "done" about it.

Big screens make viewing content on your smartphone a dream, but limited keyboard functionality makes it difficult to "input", so passive consumption is easier than productive activity. Because it is hard to write or edit, we fall back on "easy" but simplified communication using emojis or pressing a "like" button.

Treating social media as a public health issue must not eclipse the need for effective teaching of digital literacy - including an appreciation of the limits of and alternatives to smartphones.

Anne Longfield, children's commissioner for England:

Mental health is the top issue raised with us by children. Some of the stories I hear about lack of access to treatment and the acute levels of anxiety are heartbreaking.

Many children see social media as one of the triggers. The focus on body image and the craving for social validation through "likes" are all amplified by the addictive algorithms and 24/7 nature of online life.

We need to help children build resilience. Social media companies should be working on age-verification technology to stop under-13s signing up, but schools, parents and the government can do more.

It is good that online literacy will become part of relationships and sex education from 2020 and that it will start at primary school. We need to see lessons move beyond messages on safety to learning about the emotional side of social media. We need to teach children how to be responsible online, including how to disengage.

Schools should also toughen up their policies. Head teachers have told me of the benefits of banning all but non-smart phones.

Parents need to take difficult decisions too: do children really need their own smartphone and can parents set an example with their own phone use?

We also need to champion outdoor play. Let's use the "sugar tax" to improve sports and activity provision outside of school as well school sports facilities, and make sure councils make parks safe spaces for children to play.

Finally, government needs to provide funding for a mental health professional in every secondary now - not in five years' time - and give primary schools access to proper counselling.

The internet was not created with children in mind, but millions of young people are growing up in a digital world. It is our job to make sure they can embrace the benefits and avoid the pitfalls.


  • Led by Dame Sally Davies, England chief medical officer
  • Assess the impact that social media use has on children's mental health
  • Issues it will cover include cyberbullying, online gaming, sleep problems and addiction
  • It will develop guidance on safe use, including advice on age and access issues
  • An interim report will be published in December

Source: Department of Health and Social Care

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