For all the benefits to mental health a digital world can bring, such as a sense of belonging and information and support for those with problems, there are also myriad dangers associated with online activity. In the very worst cases, people have live-streamed their suicide and had people cheer them on in the comments section.
Meanwhile, cyberbullying and trolling, along with communities and groups on social media that foster, glamorise or even encourage self-harm are pervasive. Stephen Buckley, head of information at the charity Mind, acknowledges these risks: “It is vital to recognise the huge danger created by any site or social media trend that promotes self-harm, suicide or eating disorders. They can be hugely damaging and possibly dangerous to someone in a crisis.”
This has come to the forefront over the past decade as more and more children use smartphones and tablets. A Young Minds report, Resilience For the Digital World, says half of Europe’s nine- to 16-year-olds now own a smartphone; the vast majority go online at least once a week, and most daily.
Buckley says that people are now used to following their friends on social media and sharing news of a new job, relationship, or a holiday presented in the best possible light. But this can have an impact on individual self-esteem. “While low self-esteem is not a mental health problem in itself, the two are closely linked. If lots of things are affecting your self-esteem for a long time, this may lead to depression or anxiety,” says Buckley.
Pressure on young people may also come from situations where they are being bullied in daily life that then cross over into their digital lives, says Marc Bush, chief policy adviser at Young Minds. “For instance, victimisation in the school playground is replicated on their Facebook pages or their WhatsApp or Snapchat groups, so they relive the distress they’re experiencing in real life on the digital platform.”
So, what’s to be done? Bush says industry has an important role to play. Today, if you search certain hashtags on Instagram, for example, a helpline pops up. He also cites the report from the House of Lords communication committee, Growing Up With the Internet, which calls for a national digital champion who can look at the rights of young people online, educate parents and teachers on how to look out for warning signs, and support young people to understand the consequences of bullying someone online.
– Sarah Johnson
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