Social Media and its effects on children and young people’s mental health
Anne Longfield, England’s Children’s Commissioner, has written to the biggest social media companies, urging them to commit to tackling issues of disturbing content.
Her letter follows the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who tragically killed herself after viewing distressing self-harm images on Instagram. The letter urges social media companies to back the introduction of a statutory duty of care where they would have to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of children using their platforms. Ms Longfield’s letter ends with the following message to the digital industry:
With great power comes great responsibility and it is your responsibility to support measures that give children the information and tools they need growing up in this digital world - or to admit that you cannot control what anyone sees on your platforms.
Whilst Ms Longfield’s letter rightly holds the digital industry to account, the issues need to also be addressed by parents and schools. Parents can establish rules about social media use through setting clear limits about the amount of time their children spend online and through restricting access to technology in private spaces, such as in bedrooms. However, establishing rules is not sufficient. Parents can support their children to understand how to use social media both safely and responsibly. They can also teach their child what to do if they encounter distressing content online. Excessive parental monitoring of young people’s use of the internet is not always the best option and can lead to relationships breaking down. Trusting children to be responsible digital citizens is more effective because it gives the child a sense of responsibility.
Schools also play a critical role in keeping children safe online. A well-planned digital curriculum should cover themes such as digital resilience and digital citizenship so that young people know how to respond to distressing content and how to behave responsibly online. The curriculum should also provide digital literacy skills so that children and young people have the skills to keep their own accounts safe through privacy settings, blocking perpetrators of abuse, reporting abuse and setting passwords. Schools should also support children and young people to critically engage with content they see online. They should be taught to question and interrogate content for accuracy, exploitation, abuse and discrimination.
Social media use can have a detrimental impact on children and young people’s mental health. It can result in anxiety, depression, body image concerns, self-harm, substance abuse and even death. However, for young people social media is a tool for networking, keeping in touch with friends, exchanging information, a source of support and advice and a rich source of knowledge. Preventing children and young people from using social media is not an appropriate solution, given all the benefits that come with it. Schools, parents and the digital industry need to do all they can to keep children safe from harm through adopting a proactive approach rather than a reactive approach when crises occur.
Jonathan is Professor of Inclusive Education. His research focuses on LGBTQ+ inclusion and mental health. He is a researcher, teacher educator and qualified teacher.