Research urgently needed on the impact of the internet on mental health, say MPs

Houses of Parliament

Photo: Eric Hossinger

A recent report from a cross-party group of MPs has called for the government to assess whether the internet is adding to the numbers of children seeking help for mental health problems.

The report says that young people are being failed by mental health services. But it revealed plenty of confusion about the scale of the problem:

  • firstly, whether mental health problems in young people are rising (anecdotally, they are, but the hard data is 10 years old. The report said mental health services were 'operating in a fog').
  • secondly, whether the internet is making matters worse or simply making them different.

There is no shortage of evidence to suggest that the internet is having an effect:

  • ChildLine reported to the committee that the numbers of young people receiving counselling for cyberbullying have gone up 87% in one year. It is probable that bullying overall has increased and/or that it's got more unpleasant - but there is no hard and fast data. ChildLine has only been collecting this kind of information since December 2012.
  • The Huntercombe Group, a specialist mental health provider, told the committee that pro-anorexia websites can affect people without eating disorders as well as those who already have a problem. In one study, they said, 84% of people reduced their calorific intake by an average of 2,470 calories a week after viewing a pro-anorexia website.

As Young Minds pointed out, though, wringing our hands and wishing we could uninvent the internet is pointless - and might actually be counter-productive. 

'The online world is where children and young people are, and it is unrealistic to think we can suggest they limit their contact with social media. Young people we work with talk about all the help they've found from others online and that often this has been far more supporrtive than specialist services in the community. For every piece of triggering content there are young people online providing ongoing suport to other young people in distress.'

It remains to be seen whether the Department of Health and the NHS will take up the MPs' recommendations and investigate exactly what the internet is doing to our children's mental health. In the meantime, the internet is a tool both for good and bad - and what we want is for young people to use the good much more than the bad.

This puts means parents have to get involved, as Catherine Roche of Place2Be, the leading provider of mental health services to schools, told the MPs: 

'Parents should recognise that the internet is there and that children of five or six are accessing it. Parents should not be afraid of that; they should embrace it and understand what it is about, so that as parents we can also help to direct and provide support.

'Both offline and online, a child should be able to go and talk with a trusted adult, so that they can take responsibility for themselves, with help within families to provide that supporting network.'  

The onus is on parents to be informed, sypathetic and there in times of trouble.

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