Web Giants Are Fuelling Child Mental Health Crisis

The children’s commissioner has backed calls in today’s Times for urgent action to address the negative impact of social media on children’s mental health. Responding to comments from the chief executive of the NHS that web giants are fuelling a “crisis” and should come under tough scrutiny, Anne Longfield said, “The urgent response must be fast and effective. Children for whom the internet can be a powerful and positive resource do need protection from the negatives of social media and require the best mental health support.” Ms Longfield, who is responsible for promoting the rights, views and interests of children, has previously warned that “clever” social media bosses use their algorithms to “hook” children to services that can be “very stressful and destructive.” She believes that algorithms designed to create dependency, such as “auto-play” algorithms on video sites, should be banned for under-15s. She has also called for “digital citizenship” and “emotional resilience” to be included in the school curriculum for 10 and 11-year-olds.

Ms Longfield’s intervention came after The Times reported that the NHS is being forced to pick up the pieces of a childhood mental health epidemic driven by social media, its chief executive warned yesterday. Companies such as Google, which owns YouTube, and Facebook should face tough scrutiny, Simon Stevens indicated. He also voiced alarm over rising levels of child obesity. Mr Stevens, who has two children, said that the country needed to ask “some pretty searching questions around the role of technology companies, social media and the impact that is having on childhood.” He told the NHS Confederation conference in Manchester, “This cannot be a conversation that is simply left to the NHS to pick up the pieces for an epidemic of mental health challenge for our young people, induced by many other actors across our economy.”

One in ten children aged 5-16 has a clinically diagnosable mental illness. Eating disorders and self-harm are particular areas of concern. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of hospital admissions for anorexia in girls younger than 18 rose from 961 to 1,904. Schools have said that they are struggling to cope. Last week The Times revealed figures that suggest there were more than 70,000 incidents of self-harm in secondaries last year, double the figure in 2012. Mr Stevens’s comments echo those of Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, who has compared the threat to child health from social media to that posed by smoking. The Royal Society for Public Health has linked social media use with higher levels of anxiety and depression. A third of young people aged 11 to 18 who use Facebook and YouTube are exposed to bullying or distressing content such as violence or self-harm, according to a survey by the NSPCC. The government is pressing companies to introduce policies such as better enforcement of age limits on social media accounts and said that it might consider legislation to protect children if companies fail to act.

A report by Ofcom last year found that nearly a quarter of children aged 8-11 had a social media profile, despite many platforms claiming they should only be used by those aged 13 and older. On the obesity problem, Mr Stevens said that if it was not addressed, “we will be piling up cases of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, 13 different types of cancer that we know are associated with obesity.” He has previously called for a ban on junk food advertisements on social media. The government’s childhood obesity strategy is due to be published in the coming months and Mr Stevens welcomed a “renewed pragmatism” from ministers on the issue. “It’s absolutely true that we need to be more physically active. But that by itself is not going to deal with what’s happening to our food and drink and calorific environment. “That said — there is a key fact for you — on average in this country we spend twice as much time on the toilet as we do exercising.” Mr Stevens also addressed the issue of NHS funding. He said that it was a “tremendous economic bargain” at £6.60 per person per day, 30 per cent less than the spending in Germany. However, it would need “a change of gear” to cope with future challenges, he said, including a move away from the use of outpatient clinics to monitor long-term conditions. Ian Dalton, his counterpart at NHS Improvement, the hospital finance watchdog, said that 80 new district general hospitals would be needed in the next decade unless there were drastic changes. Mr Dalton said: “If the NHS is to survive as the country’s most loved institution over the next decade we need to fundamentally change and improve. It’s clear that the NHS is at a pivotal point in its history.” He said that care for patients had not moved with the times and was in need of rejuvenation. As he announced an ambition to cut inpatient stays of more than three weeks by a quarter, he said that some patients with pneumonia spent four times as long in hospital as others, with stays varying from six to 24 days.

A report published at the conference said that mental health spending would probably need to double to increase the proportion of sufferers receiving NHS treatment from 40 per cent to 70 per cent.

Credit: Kat Lay and Mark Bridge for The Times, 14 June 2018.