Psychiatrists ‘must look for evidence of social media harm in young people’

Psychiatrists must consider the impact of social media on all the children they assess for mental health problems, experts have said.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists said professionals must ask youngsters about their use of social media and technology amid growing evidence of possible links between poor mental health and content seen online.

An assessment should also be made of the amount of time young people spend online in case it is excessive, the college said.

Earlier this month, MPs said addiction to social media should potentially be classed as a disease as they called for tough new regulations to protect children from an “online Wild West”.

They said platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should be regulated by Ofcom and forced to adhere to a statutory code of conduct.

Concerns have been growing about graphic online content, including material featuring suicide and self-harm.

Earlier this year, the father of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017, said Instagram had “helped kill” his daughter.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists said harmful online content such as images of self-harm or material promoting eating disorders could have an impact on an existing mental illness.

Conditions such as depression may also make children more likely to spend time online, while use of technology could lead to poor sleep, under-performance at school, behavioural problems and eating issues, it said.

Spending too much time online also limits the time for other activities, such as face-to-face conversations with friends and family, the college said.

It recommends that children stop using technology at least an hour before going to bed and avoid using technology at mealtimes.

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chairwoman of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Although we recognise that social media and technology are not primary drivers of mental illness in young people, we know that they are an important part of their lives and can be harmful in some situations.

“As a frontline clinician, I regularly see young people who have deliberately hurt themselves after discussing self-harm techniques online.

“We’re also finding that some young people report being recommended harmful content; for example, links to websites encouraging weight loss or displaying self-harm after searching for, or clicking on, similar content just once before.”

The college is backing calls for an independent regulator, a code of conduct for social media firms and a levy to pay for research into links between technology and mental illness.

In February, following Ian Russell’s campaign after his daughter died, the head of Instagram said all graphic images of self-harm will be removed from the platform.

Emma Thomas, chief executive of Young Minds, said: “Young people we work with rarely say that social media is the ‘cause’ of mental health conditions, but they say it can heighten problems that they are already struggling with, adding to anxiety or making them feel worse when they compare their lives to those of other people.

“Some young people say that sharing their experiences of things like self-harm, eating disorders or feeling suicidal on social media is an important way of finding support.

“But if they’re part of a community which introduces them to new ways of self-harming or which encourages eating disorders, this can have a devastating impact.”

Claire Murdoch, national director for mental health at NHS England, said: “Social media plays a big part in everyday life for most children and young people but it should act as wake-up call when leading psychiatrists say online activities now need to be considered when assessing youngsters’ mental health and wellbeing.

“The NHS is implementing its most ambitious plans ever to transform mental health services and improve access for hundreds of thousands more young people each year but this good work risks being undermined if social media giants and others don’t step up to the plate, which is precisely why Simon Stevens has proposed a levy.”

A Government spokesman said: “The Government will shortly publish a White Paper which will set out the responsibilities of online platforms, how these responsibilities should be met and what would happen if they are not.

“We have heard calls for an internet regulator and to place a statutory ‘duty of care’ on platforms, and have seriously considered all options.”

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