Graphic suicide content a couple of clicks away, child psychiatrist warns

It is all too easy for children to access graphic suicide and self-harm instructions online, a leading psychiatrist has said.

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chairwoman of the faculty of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told a House of Lords committee that tech giants should point users towards help and advice, similar to messages issued by TV broadcasters before and after a programme.

It came as the Government’s long-awaited final proposals for online harms internet regulation were announced on Tuesday.

The measures will force social media sites and apps which host user-generated content to remove or limit the spread of harmful posts such as suicide material – though the Government said it is still working with the Law Commission on whether the promotion of self-harm should be made illegal.

Dr Dubicka told peers on the Lords Covid-19 Committee: “If I’m talking on the BBC, initially there will be a content warning that the broadcaster will announce ‘You may find this distressing’, so you can turn it off, which is what companies need to be doing as well.

“Then, secondly, the BBC would signpost … to Samaritans and elsewhere, so that needs to be happening on a regular basis.

“If there is distressing content, for example suicide content, that needs to be happening and it’s still just too easy to access this stuff.

“A couple of clicks and you’ve got lots of graphic images about how to kill yourself and the best way of doing it, it’s that easy.”

The psychiatrist also said teenagers need greater control over their “digital footprint”, while social media platforms should have “much better awareness around the potential harms that some of their algorithms might be having”.

A range of experts gave their views to peers on the wider topic of digital technology and how it has transformed the delivery of mental health services during the pandemic.

Tom Foley, honorary senior clinical lecturer at Newcastle University, said he had witnessed a much larger increase in telephone consultations with patients this year compared with video meetings.

“I think what that shows really is that it’s mature technologies that have really been most helpful during the pandemic, and I think things that have been already in place, where people have the underlying infrastructure both within the service and people’s homes to use it and things that can be scaled up very quickly, have been really successful,” he said.