The Science and Technology Committee report highlights a lack of guidance available for parents on screen time and internet use. To help fill this gap, the Mental Health Foundation has published new guidelines to encourage safe and healthy internet use for the whole family

The Impact of Social Media and Screen Time on Young People’s Health report highlights both the benefits of social media and the potential risks children face when accessing the websites.

Upon release of the report, the Science and Technology Committee concluded that social media companies must be subject to a legal duty of care to help protect the health and wellbeing of young people who are accessing their websites or applications.

While the Committee heard from witnesses defending social media and the positive impacts it can have, the evidence received also highlighted the potential negative effects of social media on the health and wellbeing of children and young people.

Ranging from problematic sleeping and body image to bullying, grooming and ‘sexting’, the Committee acknowledged that while these risks existed prior to social media, its rise has helped to facilitate it - child abuse in particular. The National Crime Agency reported that referrals it received from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children had “increased by 700% over the last four years.”

Despite these shocking statistics, the quality and quantity of academic evidence on the effects of social media on overall health remains low.

The Mental Health Foundation responds to the findings

With social media use rising so quickly in recent years, safety advice and information is limited. In response to the report and to fill this gap, the Mental Health Foundation has published new guidelines and advice for parents on children’s internet use, including ways to maximise its benefits while also being aware of the negative impact and how to minimise this risk.

Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation said: “We know that children are increasingly connecting with the world through digital media and, as this report shows, it can be difficult to keep children safe and healthy online. We welcome many of the recommendations made by the Committee, including the proposal for legislation to recognise that social media companies have a duty of care to children and young people.

“It is extremely important that harmful content, content that promotes suicidal ideation, or links suicide with self-harm, is removed as effectively as possible. Evidence shows that exposure to content relating to suicide methods, or which romanticise suicide, can be extremely harmful. There is also the possibility that unsupported discussion between individuals following a suicide or suicide attempt can lead to a contagion effect which increases the risk of further suicides.

“We also know that technology has played a huge role in enabling young people to share their authentic experiences of mental ill health and increasing social connection for isolated groups - and that it’s possible to use digital tools in a mentally healthy way. The evidence in this area is not as robust as it should be - though strides are being made.

“We need more, and better research to quantify and add context on the risks, understand the positives, and determine what works to prevent our online lives causing distress or contributing to suicide. This needs the collaboration of all sectors including social media firms, academia, charities, young people and parents.

“It is good to see that the Committee acknowledges the important role of education in building a better awareness of the harms and benefits of digital media. We fully support the recommendation that PSHE education must be made mandatory by the Government and should include age-appropriate lessons on digital activity.

“Finally, parents have a very important role in helping to balance children’s offline and online life and support good ‘digital citizenship’ in online relationships and behaviour. As highlighted by the Committee, there is a lack of guidance available for parents, and we have produced guidance to fill this gap.”

Social media: Advice for parents

  • Remember the internet isn’t all bad.
  • Be age-appropriate.
  • Keep talking.
  • Promote good sleep habits.
  • Talk to your child about body image.
  • Look out for warning signs.

You can read the full guidelines on the Mental Health Foundation website.

Also responding to the report is Will Gardner OBE, Director of the UK Safer Internet Centre. He said: “In an increasingly digitised world, we are exposed to a myriad of opportunities and pressures online. With mounting pressure on the industry to be more regulated, we welcome the Science and Technology Committee’s report examining what more needs to be done both by, and to, online companies to improve children’s online lives.

“This will add value to the policy-making that will follow the Government’s forthcoming white paper on online harms, and their plans for regulation. These important discussions will be ongoing, but we all have an opportunity to do something right now. All of us - from individuals to industry - have a vital role to play in making the internet safe and empowering for young people.

“Whatever regulation is coming down the track we must still also equip young people, parents and teachers with the tools to navigate online challenges. Next week, such an opportunity exists for everybody.

“Thousands of organisations will join together on Safer Internet Day, Tuesday 5 February, to highlight the support available to young people, parents and teachers. This gives us all an extraordinary opportunity to start the conversation, and empower young people to use the power of the internet for good.”

Join the conversation on 5 February using #SaferInternetDay2019.

For more articles on children’s health and wellbeing, visit our Kids section. Here you can find information such as ‘How to talk to kids about mental health’ and ‘How to help kids deal with anxiety.’

You can reap the benefits of social media too. Happiful contributor, Fiona Thomas, shares her tips on ‘How to make genuine connections online.

If you are worried about your own, or your child’s mental health, you may benefit from speaking to a professional. Enter your location in the box below to find a counsellor near you.