Social Media, Mental Health and Young People – my speech at a House of Commons seminar.

Event Seminar: Children, Young People And Mental Health: Communicating In An Online World

Location: House of Commons, Westminster.

Date: January 17th 2018.

Hosted by: British Psychological Society and Mental Health Foundation.

BPS logo   MHF logo small


“Hi, I’m Emma Wilson, and I run my own business in mental health training and consultancy. I am a Youth and Adult Mental Health First Aid instructor and have a background in research, higher education and policy. The impact of social media and technology is one of my key areas of interest, and I deliver workshops which touch upon the challenges and opportunities.

I have academic experience of working in this field and the dissertation of my MSc focused on the use e-health to support young people with anxiety and/or depression. Prior to starting my own business, I worked in the Learning Technology and Innovation department at LSE on a student-focused project which looked at LSE students’ views of technology. During my early to mid 20s, I sat on several youth advisory groups and engaged in many voluntary projects in which I have gained a great deal of experience discussing topics such as mental health and technology.

I have personal experience of mental health problems which started in childhood, and I bring this perspective into my professional role. I run an active Twitter account (@MindfulEm) which I have used to connect with others in the field of mental health and when I was unwell, I found social media crucial for reducing feelings of isolation.

It is my belief that the impact of technology and impact of social media on a person’s mental health is not black or white. It is neither good nor bad but can be both, depending on the context.

Despite some of the serious risks, particularly to young people and vulnerable adults who may access harmful sites that promote anorexia, self-harm and suicidal ideation, technology and social media are not disappearing any time soon. As such, I aim to focus on the many opportunities afforded by technology and the ways we can work with challenges.

Context

It is important to look at this in its context: the NHS is required to make financial savings and mental health services are underfunded. Despite a 23% prevalence rate, it is estimated that mental health services receive 13% of funding.[1] When looking at CAMHS services, this is more limited again. If less than 5% of the total MH spend goes to under 18 services, there is no surprise that many children do not get the help they desperately need.[2] This is where technology, I believe, can step in.

Positives and Negatives

Online therapy has the benefit of greater privacy and confidentiality, something which is useful given the stigma still surrounding mental ill health and talking about sensitive issues. For young people who have grown up in a society of text message rather than phone calls, having a screen between the therapist and themselves may act as a safety blanket. For example, it has already been seen that more young people are accessing The Samaritans’ text message support line.

Technology may also enhance accessibility to services as young people do not need to be transported to the doctor’s surgery. This is particularly true for those living in rural areas. It is also beneficial for patients struggling with fatigue or other physical health problems. During my own periods of poor mental and physical health, attending my health appointments were extremely tiring and on occasions I had to cancel unless therapy could be carried out over the phone.

The online world has also benefited my own mental health in many other ways:

  1. By enabling me to connect with others and express myself, through writing an online blog
  2. By empowering me as a service user and expert-by-experience by giving me the opportunity to better understand my health problems through online research with reputable sites
  3. By providing new work/voluntary opportunities, including those in the mental health field.

However, it is important to note that I did not grow up attached to a smartphone or with a Facebook account. I had access to a desktop computer in the family home where I could use the dial-up internet connection after 6pm (assuming no-one needed to make a phone call) but the extent of my social media presence was MySpace and MSN Messenger. I didn’t fit in at school, had a difficult home life and was teased at school but it didn’t extend into some of the heartbreaking stories of cyberbulling that we hear about nowadays.

Despite not joining Facebook and Twitter until my late teens, technology provided me with an escape whilst growing up in a dysfunctional family home. I grew up with a brother who has autism, behavioural problems and severe learning difficulties, and I often felt very isolated as my parents were required to focus on his needs. The internet was, for me, an escape, as I could play on websites such as Neopets or teach myself some basic HTML for MySpace design or how to use Photoshop.

However, despite these positives, using technology as my coping mechanism and escape from reality may have masked my underlying mental health problems from the world. In hindsight, I desperately needed mental health support, particularly as my brother got older, but instead I would hide away behind the computer screen for hours.

One of the other key issues around internet use is the safety aspect and the plethora of harmful sites that now exist.

So how do we address these issues?

It is important to educate parents in the dangers of the internet as well as healthy internet use. Many schools already run such courses but parents may not always attend these workshops. It might therefore be useful to provide information in school newsletters, as well as signposting parents to access websites such as NetAware, a website put together by parents, children and experts which provides an A-Z guide on apps or websites young people might access on their mobile device. Rather than banning children from using certain apps, it is important to communicate with these young people and understand why they are using these sites.

It is also important to remember that tackling mental health problems requires a whole-person, multi-faceted and holistic approach. There is no quick fix, nor is there one solution. It is often a combination of factors. In an ideal world, with unlimited funding, access to face-to-face talking therapy would be available for everyone young person within 8 weeks. However, this is not the case, and unless the funding situation changes we must be realistic about how we can reach the most people, whilst retaining a therapeutic relationship and without compromising on quality.

We must also remember that technology and social media, by themselves, are not the problem. They are simply the mechanisms to perpetuate problems in an individual already vulnerable to harm. It is important to look at the reasons behind these harmful behaviours. As such, I am of the opinion that we can help many young people develop into adults with healthy coping strategies by introducing mental health education into the classroom from primary school age. This can also include education around the harms of technology and how to look after yourself online.

Conclusion

To conclude, technology and social media are not going away any time soon. Whilst it is important to raise the concerns, we need to accept that we need to work with these challenges rather than fight them. By better understanding technology and promoting education around these areas – as well as all aspects of emotional health and wellbeing – we can better protect children from wanting to access these harmful sites or coming across them by mistake. For me, the online world has provided countless opportunities for my career, as well as acting as a lifesaver when I was unwell and felt isolated. However, we need to be mindful of the impact that 24/7 connectivity will have on the wiring of a young person’s brain. We need to ensure they understand the difference between reality and virtual reality, as well as the importance of spending time off-screen. Ultimately, we need to make sure they are fully supported in all aspects of their mental health and wellbeing by teaching about matters of good self-esteem, healthy relationships and what to do if they are struggling mentally. If this happens, they are more likely to use mobile devices and the internet in a fun, healthy and productive way, and more likely to feel OK about talking about their mental health, rather than relying on harmful websites or allowing social media to perpetuate the negative feelings they have in the offline world.”

[1] http://nhsproviders.org/media/1845/nhs-providers-briefing-april-2015-mental-health-funding-1516-3.pdf

[2] http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mediacentre/pressreleases2016/underfundedcamhsresearch.aspx

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