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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the effect of social media on the mental health of young people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I called this debate because I have become increasingly concerned about the mental health problems afflicting our young people and about the role of social media in adding to the strain that they are under. I should perhaps declare an interest: as the father of two young children, I look with an increased sense of foreboding to the day when they acquire their first smartphone.
From the reaction I have received to this debate within Parliament and beyond, I sense that there are many parents and carers up and down the country who are concerned about this issue. The problem is that parents today can feel particularly helpless. Unlike in the past, when parents could draw from their own experience to help navigate their children through the minefield of adolescence, the extraordinary pace of change means that many parents simply cannot do that now. They are not digital natives, so it is hard for them to prepare their children for the digital deluge to come.
Let me start with the background. It is not an exaggeration to say that it sometimes feels as though this generation of young people is one of the most unhappy since the second world war. No MP can fail to be aware of the pressures on young people’s mental health. As the MP for Cheltenham, I see it in the brave young people from local schools who come to my surgery to talk about in-patient care and waiting times for talking therapies. I see it in the growing workload for staff at the excellent Brownhills eating disorder clinic at St Paul’s Medical Centre. I see it in the statistics provided by Teens in Crisis, which provides counselling services across Gloucestershire for young people: in 2013, it was receiving 20 to 30 self-referrals per calendar month; in 2016, the figure was around 70.
This debate is not principally about how we, as a society, pick up the pieces. It is not about NHS resources, or about what more we need to do to bring parity of esteem. Both of those issues are very important and were extensively debated last week in an excellent debate arising out of the publication of the Youth Select Committee report on young people’s mental health. Instead, this debate is about what we can do to address problems upstream, before they have caused damage. My view is clear: we need to be as focused on preventing these problems as we are on curing them, and that means focusing on causes.
Today, my focus is on what an increasing number of studies suggest is playing a very significant part in this precipitate decline in young people’s mental health: social media. Social media are, of course, utterly pervasive among young people. They are totally immersed in a virtual world. That world can be very positive but it can also be harmful, to both the way they perceive the world around them and the way they perceive themselves. Increasingly, young people seem to be finding it hard to distinguish between the real and virtual worlds.
Let me make it clear that this is an emerging topic in academic research. Association and correlation are not the same as causal link, but it is becoming tolerably plain that social media can have a damaging impact. Turning to some of the studies, the Office for National Statistics’ 2015 publication, “Measuring National Well-being: Insights into children's mental health and well-being”, found that there is a “clear association” between longer time spent on social media and mental health problems. While 12% of children who spend no time on social networking websites have symptoms of mental ill health, the figure rises to 27% for those who are glued to the sites for three or more hours a day. That is particularly worrying for girls, because research shows that girls are far more likely to spend excessive amounts of time on social sites than boys. One in 10 girls was found to be in the top category for time spent on the websites, compared to just one in 20 boys.
How can social media have this negative impact? Embryonic research suggests that there are three principal routes: first, online bullying; secondly, the phenomenon of what I call “compare and despair”; and thirdly, sleep deprivation.
Taking bullying first, a study by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that bullying or trolling was by far the single largest category of upsetting experience encountered online. MentalHelp.net found that 95% of teenagers who use social media have witnessed cyber-bullying and 33% have been victims themselves. Bullying is as old as the hills—there is nothing particularly new about it, unpleasant as it may be—but the power of social media to amplify its impact is so transformational and can be so damaging. Social media provide new and inventive ways to be cruel, such as body shaming and hurtful posts, excluding children from online games, setting up hate sites, creating fake accounts and hijacking online identities, and they have the power to scale up that bullying by using the technology to spread its impact widely through a school community or even beyond.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this incredibly useful and important debate. Does he agree that in the past children who were bullied at school would be able to escape that by going home, but now with social media, bullying is constant and they can be exposed to it every hour of their lives?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman must have had a copy of my speech; the next paragraph says precisely that.
Whereas in the past, children could physically escape their tormentors, nowadays social media make that impossible. The way I put it is that platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram bring bullies into the bedroom, so children’s homes are no longer the sanctuaries that they once were.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is the anonymity that some of these platforms provide? As our colleague, Stuart Blair Donaldson, just pointed out, children cannot escape from this kind of bullying, but neither can they necessarily identify the perpetrator. Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that the platforms need to do a lot more by way of regulation to try and minimise that?
I absolutely agree and will be developing those points in due course, because it seems to me that social media providers have to do more. It is no good simply to give us these vague blandishments, saying, “Oh well, you can click to get some advice.” They have to become far more robust about it. The anonymity also creates an element of menace about the whole thing and simply adds to the level of bullying.
The second route is the phenomenon of “compare and despair”. What do I mean by that? I am referring to the fact that young people observe imagery online that can inspire profound feelings of inadequacy. In many cases, they are not yet mature enough to realise that everyone has apparently become their own PR agent: people are increasingly projecting an online image of their lives that is beautiful and perfect in every way, and even though that may be misleading in reality, it may not feel that way to a 12, 13 or 14-year-old.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on delivering a very eloquent speech. He is coming to a point I want to raise about teenagers in particular who have eating disorders. I have found that to be quite a prevalent problem, often involving people who feel under pressure. That pressure can come from social media because people are looking at the success of others and feel they have to aspire to it. As my hon. Friend said, they look at other people who seem to have a perfect body and so on, and that seems to be a growing problem in teenage mental health.
That is absolutely right. At the end of my hon. Friend’s intervention, he hit on a particularly important point in mentioning the growing problem. Let us be clear: negative body image has long been with us. When I was growing up, the finger was pointed at hard-copy magazine publishers and the size zero models that were in those magazines, but once again social media have the power to magnify the impact.
Interestingly, a study compared the impact on women of Facebook images against those on a fashion website. It found that the former led to a greater desire among them to change aspects of their appearance. One can speculate about the reasons for that: is it because people think, “Well, I recognise that in a fashion magazine things may be airbrushed and stylised, but I do not expect that on a Facebook post,” so it is somehow more damaging? I offer that as a possibility but there may be plenty of others.
As well as body image concerns, there are issues about popularity and feeling inadequate. Anecdotally, it is clear that teenagers make a habit of comparing their own posts’ popularity with those of other people. We increasingly get the sense that young people fear that their existence compares unfavourably with others. Much—probably too much—gets read into the absence of “likes” or “views”.
Finally, there is the effect that social media have on sleep patterns. That might sound rather prosaic, but it is important. A study presented by the British Psychological Society in September last year in Manchester found that the need to be constantly available and responding 24/7 on social media accounts is linked to poor sleep quality. Research from the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference that was tweeted to me this morning suggests that almost half—45%—of students admit that they check their mobile device after going to bed, and that a staggering 23% check it more than 10 times a night. The concern is not just that they turn up to school exhausted but that sleep deprivation is well known to be a trigger for depression.
I know that the Government are very mindful of that issue and that a lot of excellent work is being done to support parents and schools to help children to use social media safely. The Department for Education funded MindEd to set up a new site, MindEd for Families, which was launched earlier this year and which I have looked at. It provides free online advice on a range of mental health issues affecting children and young people; it includes, of course, a section on social media. This morning I read the Department’s advice sheet entitled “Advice for parents and carers on cyberbullying”. It is really helpful and very good. I also pay tribute to the fact that the Government are continuing to provide funding to the YoungMinds parents helpline, which is a national service providing free and confidential online and telephone support, information and advice.
That is all hugely welcome—there is great deal more as well, and I look forward to hearing about that from the Minister—but the fact remains that young people’s mental health does not appear to be moving in the right direction. Against that context, I will make two points. First, if we are going to maximise the effectiveness of our response, I believe we need a more thorough and scientific investigation of the causes, because although strong emerging evidence shows a correlation between social media use and declining mental health, the time has come to bottom it out with something more robust.
Back in February 2014, the House of Commons Health Committee launched an inquiry into child and adolescent mental health services. A subject it took evidence on was the impact of bullying and of digital culture. It recommended that
“in our view sufficient concern has been raised to warrant a more detailed consideration of the impact of the internet on children’s and young people’s mental health…and we recommend that the Department of Health/NHS England taskforce should take this forward”.
That was eminently sensible and I invite the Government to do so, if they have not already. Again, it may be that we will get more information, but I was a bit concerned that that view may not be finding favour, because in answer to a question from Lord Blencathra, the Government said:
“The Department does not itself conduct research, but funds research through the National Institute for Health Research…and the Department’s Policy Research Programme”,
which they said
“have not funded specific research into the possible mental and psychological impact on children of using Twitter and Facebook and have no plans to commission research on this topic.”
Of course, I entirely recognise that public funding is tight and we cannot fund every single project, but it seems to me that the sheer weight of the evidence is now sufficiently strong that it calls for that robust study to take place.
My second point echoes one that was made earlier: social media platforms need to face up to their responsibilities. We rightly hold headteachers accountable for bullying and abuse that takes place on their premises. Social media platforms also need to take their fair share of responsibility for what takes place on their own digital premises. Creating safety guides is not enough. Suspending people from Facebook or even expelling them is perfectly sensible in theory, but does it happen in practice?
As my hon. Friend Tim Loughton, in an excellent debate last week, said about social media companies:
“They are huge companies employing many thousands of people, yet the numbers in their scrutiny and enforcement departments are woefully low.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 616, c. 481.]
I am not here to beat up the social media companies. I think they do some important work and what happens is a fact of life, but I think they need to step up and face up to their responsibilities, because they have to recognise that they can be a force for good but that they can also be a force for something far less welcome.
In conclusion, social media are the phenomenon of our times. They have the ability to take all the ordinary experiences of growing up—the triumphs and disasters—and magnify them beyond anything we could ever have imagined a generation ago. They can create heroes in seconds, but they can crush people too. Their capacity to intensify bullying, enhance body anxiety and exaggerate exclusion is becoming increasingly clear. If we want a society that truly tackles those problems upstream, builds resilience in our young people and prevents as well as cures, the time has come to ramp up our response.
This is only a 60-minute debate and seven Members of Parliament have written in to take part, if they can. As is laid down by the Chairman of Ways and Means, I have to provide the Front Benchers a total of 20 minutes of speaking time, which only leaves a short period for all the hon. Members who have indicated that they want to speak. Therefore, I will impose a time limit of four minutes per Member. If hon. Members go over that limit, I may drop the limit further.
Perfection: the state or quality of being perfect; a state completely free of faults or defects. Perfection is popular. People are attracted it. People are attracted to you. In 2016 perfection is everything, or rather, to young people it is. Among young people, there is a pressure to be perfect, to act in a perfect way, to look perfect, to have a perfect body, to get a perfect number of Instagram likes, and to be in a perfect friendship group. If young people do not meet those high standards, the self-loathing begins and the feeling of worthlessness sets in, sometimes with fatal consequences.
While preparing for this debate, I have spoken to lots of young people. One explained how he felt about social media, saying:
“Young people are made to feel like they live an unfulfilled life, because theirs doesn’t live up to the seemingly perfect lives they see on social media”.
And that is just the way it is. With technology and social media sites making it so easy to edit and amend—or rather, correct—photographs, it is easier than ever before to manipulate the truth, allowing us to present ourselves in our own filtered sense of reality, showing only what we want to show. That can result in people critically comparing their lives with the lives of others, and using others’ posts as a measure of success or failure in their own life. That cannot be right. We must teach young people to aspire not to unattainable perfection, but to personal satisfaction, and to love themselves for who they are.
For young people today, the pressure to succeed is all around them, so much so that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports a 200% increase in recent years in the number of young people seeking counselling over exam stress alone. For others, the coping method is more worrying: the Mental Health Foundation estimates that between one in 12 and one in 15 people self-harm, with some research suggesting that the UK has the highest rate of self-harm in Europe. We may be shocked by those figures, but many young people who self-harm do not harm themselves in a way that requires medical attention, so those numbers only show part of the picture. Social media do not always help with that. One person told me about a problem relating to the website Tumblr, saying:
“Young people are able to type any mental illness into the search bar and there are ineffective controls to dissuade people from seeing...harmful content. When I self-harmed, I would find Tumblr was my place to go to see material by other users that would encourage me to hurt myself.”
That illustrates that social media can not only cause mental illness in young people, but perpetuate the problem.
Social media are vital tools for young people today and we must not seek to interfere with the good they do. Another young person I spoke to explained that they suffer from chronic depression and acknowledged that occasionally social media worsen their mental health, but when they are feeling low and cannot leave the house, social media mean that they are not alone; contacting friends is instantaneous, wherever they are. It is important not to forget the benefits of social media, which can do a lot of good.
There are many lessons for us to take from the debate. Young people must know that they are valued for who they are, no matter what their Facebook timeline, Twitter feed, Snapchat story or Instagram followers say. Young people are perfect for being who they are.
I want to take part in the debate to tell the story of one of my constituents, Declan Duncan, an incredibly brave young man from Castlemilk in my constituency. His life was made a complete misery by the use of social media, and he wrote to me to tell me about some of the experiences he has been through. I have met him on a number of occasions and was moved to tears when he told his story in public at Castlemilk Youth Complex, which gave him enormous support. I pay tribute to the people there, particularly to the youth worker, Christopher Lang, who really helped Declan.
Declan was bullied throughout primary school and high school, starting off from the fact that, since birth, he has had a tracheostomy because of a collapsed windpipe. When he was in high school, he came out as gay at a very young age—something that I certainly would not have had the bravery to do when I was in high school. The bullies used social media, in addition to face-to-face bullying, which we would understand to be traditional bullying.
People made up fake profiles in Declan’s name using his photographs and said that he was doing all sorts of vulgar things that were completely false and untrue. They also set up petitions and shared them on Facebook, Twitter and all the rest of it, encouraging people to—to quote from one post—“run him out” of Castlemilk. There was even a concerted effort to get people to turn up to school one day with things such as tomatoes and eggs, and to run him out of school. All of that was organised on Facebook. Declan sent me some screengrabs of some of the stuff from the time, and people even complained that their posts had been deleted. His life was made a complete misery.
The Castlemilk Youth Complex told me about a phenomenon that is happening at the minute: there seems to be a website that is being used by people to create what is made to look like a genuine news article. People can type in anyone’s name, use any photograph they wish and claim that they have done anything, and it is then spread all around Facebook and Twitter. The youth complex has cases of particularly vulnerable individuals being targeted by these rancid people in the most vulgar fashion.
A lot of people hearing this horrific story, which the hon. Gentleman is articulating powerfully, will want to know what the social media platforms did to clamp down on those who were posting and perpetrating such vile abuse.
That is a fine point, on which I will aim to end. Social media platforms need to do more but, in addition, teachers need to be better empowered. Although I respect that that specific matter is for our Government in Scotland, I think that the social media platforms need to engage better with educators to combat bullying in their schools.
Declan has since left high school. He is now studying social care at college and doing very well. The last time I met him, he was a happy young man at the gay pride event in Glasgow. Castlemilk Youth Complex will go on to support other young people who are being targeted in such a way. I hope that all of us here, other Members of Parliament, local councillors and teachers will work better with and get on to the social media companies, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham suggested, to ensure that all those other people like young Declan out there in our constituencies get better support, which they so badly need.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate Alex Chalk on securing it and on setting the scene so well, and I congratulate the other Members who have spoken or who will speak.
This is a pertinent issue. Social media can be a wonderful tool for arranging get-togethers to catch up with old friends and for enjoying updates on the lives of people who live far away. I have seen social media wonderfully used to promote family events, to ask people to pray for a specific need or to provide help through churches and church groups. Social media can do good things.
I saw the part that social media played in spreading information on the dangers of legal highs. I met a young man who organised a peaceful protest outside somewhere that sold legal highs, as they were then known. The protest was well organised, respectful and well attended due to the proper use of social media, and it highlighted the dangers to those using such drugs. Social media brought good from a terrible situation, so they can do good.
I have enjoyed photographs, witty remarks and jokes that have been shared by others, and I can see the benefits of social media when they are used appropriately. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, this debate is sadly not about the good that social media can bring; it is about the bad that social media do to some people’s lives when they are misused. They can become a mistake that will always be there for all to see. They can be a weapon for people to be bullied or mocked in perpetuity. They can be a tool for people to be socially excluded, and they can be the harshest judge and critic that a person will ever have.
How can we protect our children from that? The obvious answer is that we should not allow our children to use social media, which is unrealistic. There is an age limit on most social media sites, but that is not enough. We must step in. We have all seen figures showing that children who spend more than three hours each school day on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are more than twice as likely to suffer poor mental health. Whereas 12% of children who spend no time on social networking websites have symptoms of mental ill health, the figure rises to 27% for those who spend three hours or more a day on such websites, so there are health issues. That is not the Minister’s direct responsibility—I am pleased to see her in her place—but we need answers.
How can parents protect their children and how can the Government help that protection? The limitations in place are not working. Enough is Enough, an organisation for internet safety, conducted a survey that found that 95% of teenagers who use social media have witnessed cyber-bullying and 33% have been victims themselves. Too many children are seeing and being part of something that we seek to protect them from.
A study exploring the relationship between teenagers, social media and drug use found that 70% of teenagers aged 12 to 17 use social media and that those who interact with social media on a daily basis are five times more likely to use tobacco, three times more likely to use alcohol and twice as likely to use marijuana. The figures clearly show that there are health and addiction problems related to too much use of social media. In addition, 40% admitted that they had been exposed to pictures of people under the influence via social media, which suggests a correlation between the two factors.
Although all that might not be substantive enough for a court of law, it is jarring enough that the House must consider how we can better regulate things to protect young people. Can we legislate for protection? Can we allocate funding to train schools in dealing with problems caused by social media? Can we ensure that no one can set up profiles until they get older? All those things need to be worked through with healthcare professionals and those who know about social media. The Government, and the Minister in her response, must decide to take action to protect our children. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham said, we are all here to protect children. Action must be taken now.
I am grateful to Alex Chalk for securing this debate, which is a reflection of how fundamentally our society has changed. Technology is a huge part of that. Young people today are growing up in a world that is markedly different from any experience we had of growing up, with the possible exception of my hon. Friend Stuart Blair Donaldson.
As we have heard today, social media are a double-edged sword. Social media can be an important social outlet and an extraordinary source of information and education, and they enable people to connect with each other over vast distances. The benefits that social media offer to both young and old are plainly obvious but they can also be a dangerous, insidious tool. Social media are a stick with which too many of our young people can be beaten. They can be a yoke of oppression around their necks as they are pressured to conform, to be governed and even to be alienated by the false reality that is too often projected to and targeted at our young people.
It is alarming that research has associated online social networking with severe psychiatric disorders, including depressive symptoms, anxiety and low self-esteem, as well as poor sleeping patterns—sleeping patterns are so important to physical and mental wellbeing. The conclusion has been reached that young people’s immersion in social media should be considered a serious public health concern.
We all know that people fill their Facebook pages with pictures of their apparently perfect lives, which pressures others to portray and edit their lives in the same way for Facebook. It is thought that that is why young women are now three times more likely than young men to exhibit common mental health symptoms. That statistic has risen alongside the growth of social media, so we need to pay attention to it.
Barnardo’s has carried out important work on the effects of social media on the mental health and wellbeing of young people. It has concluded that access to online pornography and other harmful online content can distort not only young people’s body image but their view of healthy relationships. It can even lead to harmful sexual behaviour, often due to distorted ideas of consent and what a healthy relationship actually looks like.
Of course, as we have heard, social media can also be an insidious tool for those who use them as a vehicle for bullying. Social media can be extremely intimidating for victims, who can find them very difficult to escape because of their sheer prevalence in young people’s lives.
I am delighted that the Scottish Government’s “Respect Me” campaign recognises the importance of this issue and the essentialness of addressing it and taking it extremely seriously. Young people inhabit a different world from us as they develop, grow and find themselves, which makes them vulnerable and poses all sorts of challenges. It is our job to do all we can to protect them, and I am interested to hear how the Minister will proceed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. The development of social media and the role they play in each of our lives is significant, yet there is limited focus on their impact, so I sincerely thank Alex Chalk for securing this debate. Social media are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but there is no doubt that they can have a negative impact on the mental health of young people. I take this opportunity to draw attention to a few adverse effects of social media and how they can affect the mental health of children, teenagers and young people.
One of the most notable consequences of social media use is that it can create an unhealthy need for constant approval. When a young person uploads a new photo of themselves, the number of likes can act as a barometer of their perceived popularity that they can instantly compare with their peers. In the past, being at the receiving end of a compliment or even a smile may have been enough for a teenager to feel good, but now they will often need dozens of likes on their profile picture or dozens of retweets to feel the same sense of acceptance. It can be incredibly important for a young person to feel as if they fit in, but with social media creating such an obvious scale of approval it can be painfully difficult for a teenager to think they are popular.
Aside from that, social media can be damaging because they can create unrealistic expectations. Young people naturally compare their appearance with that of their peers, but when the photos they see of their friends have had filters and effects applied, they are comparing themselves to unrealistic standards. When people use social media to post about their lives and how they spend their weekends and holidays, teenagers will compare their lives, too. Inevitably some will see themselves as having less interesting or less exciting lives than their peers, which can be damaging to their self-esteem. Of course it is not only friends and family with whom young people compare themselves. Social media give opportunities to follow celebrities, which gives way to even more distant and unrealistic standards to which to aspire.
We should be cautious not to overplay the dangers of social media. It is important to recognise that all technological developments of this scale can have positives. History should serve as a reminder that we often get ahead of ourselves when a new technology plays a role in our lives. Social media are having an adverse effect on the mental health of young people, but they are not inherently bad. Indeed, in moderation, social media can help young people to have a more positive adolescence. If platforms such as Facebook are used to organise face-to-face interactions, rather than replace them, young people can create relationships with far more ease than previous generations.
Social media can also be a great alternative education tool and a way for young people to express themselves, but we should be cautious of them and recognise the negative effect they often have on the mental health of young people. It is vital that social media companies do more not only to manage the content of their pages and sites but to take responsibility for their impact on young people and their mental health.
It is great to see attention and parliamentary time given to debate mental health issues again, and I am particularly pleased that we are debating the roots they can have in social media. I hope we can all learn from this discussion and that concerns raised today will be taken on board by the Minister and eventually translated into Government policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Alan. As has been mentioned today, I speak as the youngest male MP and as someone who has grown up with social media—a digital native. I also speak as a vice-chair of the all-party group on body image and as someone with my own hashtag on Instagram—#instaMP, if anyone is interested.
I thank everyone who got in touch with me to share their stories and experiences of mental health and social media, particularly Vicky Kerr, who shared her dissertation on the subject. Social media can be a great tool in many ways, but platforms such as Instagram often portray a rose-tinted picture of a person’s life and can promote the idea of self-worth based on how many “likes” a picture gets.
The fact that young people can readily access at any time of the day pictures of famous people sharing their seemingly perfect lives can make them question their own self-worth. Additionally, the predominance of photos of those beautiful people present young people, mainly young girls, with a skewed vision of how they should look. The people they look at often look that way because of their job—they can dedicate time to it and will often have nutritionists, personal trainers and I dare say the odd bit of Photoshop. Most young people do not have access to such facilities, and famous people often do not acknowledge that they use them.
Constant exposure to those images and basing a positive self-image on likes can lead to significant deterioration in a young person’s mental health. In extreme cases, that can lead to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia. That might be an over-simplification of a complex and serious illness, but the idealised body images so often portrayed in both conventional and social media have an effect on people at risk of suffering from it.
Unfortunately, social media often hinders rather than helps people who suffer from significant mental health issues. Young people can often get caught up in eating disorder promotion on social media. Hashtags such as #thinspiration and #skipdinnerwakeupthinner allow people to connect and share tips on how to lose weight, purge and starve themselves. That makes the problems more severe and can have severe and tragic consequences. I have witnessed the devastating effects that losing a daughter to an eating disorder can have on a family, which is why I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and raise awareness—I wish I had more time to speak.
As a society, we could do a lot more to promote healthy body image and to talk about and be more open about our mental health, whatever age we are. I will leave Members with a quotation:
“The quickest way to get a bikini body is to put a bikini on”.
Thank you once again, Sir Alan, for your excellent chairmanship today. I thank Alex Chalk for bringing this crucial debate to Westminster Hall and for providing such a comprehensive review of the field. He highlighted the extraordinary pressures on the mental health of our young people today and the importance of prevention, research and specific interventions.
I begin by declaring an interest: I have worked in mental health as a psychologist and continue to maintain my skills and engagement in line with my professional registration requirements. In the short time I have today, I will cover the positives and negatives of social media, sum up the thoughtful contributions from Members and make recommendations to the Minister.
We have heard that there are many aspects to the new world of social media. Indeed, as a candidate I had never before tweeted but was told that it was crucial to the campaign and that I needed to develop a social media profile. Social media are coming to everyone of all ages, including me. I have noticed that they make people question themselves: “Is this relevant? Am I witty?”—not usually, in my case—“How do I phrase this? Will I make a mistake and be criticised?” They can help us to link with many people but are also a pressure. I was interested to learn about Instagram today from my youthful hon. Friend Stuart Blair Donaldson—something else that I hope I never have to learn to use.
We know from psychological research that, for introverted teenagers, linking with peers can be easier through social media than in person. Social media can have an affirmative effect, as we heard from Jim Shannon, and can help to build self-esteem and friendship networks. However, some problems emanate when young people’s social lives begin to completely link with social media and online activity, rather than with active involvement with others for some part of the day and building friendship networks of people with whom they can spend quality time and engage. One key question about social media must be how much is too much and how much is healthy.
In a 2012 survey, 53% of social media users in the UK said that social media had changed their behaviour. Of those, 51% said that the change was negative because of a decline in confidence. Young people are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure and negative comparison. They may feel inadequate because they do not seem to have as many friends as their peers, as we heard from Chris Elmore, or because they feel that they are not physically perfect. Research indicates that this trend may affect girls more than boys, but none the less it can affect all our children and young people.
Millennials apparently take around 25,700 selfies in their lifetime. A recent NHS report has shown a large increase in the number of young women suffering from mental health problems as a result of selfie culture—we heard that point put forcefully by Christina Rees and my hon. Friend Patricia Gibson. We also heard about dangerous websites that can encourage young people to self-harm or to reduce their weight to critical proportions. Earlier this year, Instagram introduced anonymous reporting tools and a support network designed to tackle issues from self-harm to eating disorders. Some of the answers may be online, but most definitely not all of them are.
Hon. Members have spoken eloquently about the fear of missing out. There is increasing pressure on young people to be part of the group and to be included in online activity constantly, so they become agitated, anxious and find it difficult to switch off and resume everyday activities. It almost becomes an obsession.
Cyber-bullying was raised by the hon. Member for Cheltenham and by my hon. Friend Stewart Malcolm McDonald, who spoke eloquently about his constituent. It is unacceptable and can lead to suicidal behaviour, particularly in vulnerable populations.
On the sensitive issue of sexting, it appears, worryingly, to be much more common. Sexting affects a considerable proportion of young people, who may feel pressure to sext their naked body parts to third parties. Those photographs can then find their way online, to mentally scar those young people and leave them literally exposed to the world in perpetuity.
It is clear that society has moved online, and our responses need to take account of that. I ask that the Government look at standardised online materials for children and adolescents to help them to prevent harm caused by social media use and to take precautions for themselves. I also ask that police service resourcing be supported to take action against sites that specifically focus on young people and aim to undermine their mental wellbeing. As always, we must target the online predators who may target young people. Safeguards for online sites must be introduced. Children and young people need education on safe online usage, as do their parents. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham eloquently said, we need to develop research and treatment to help people who have had their mental health damaged online. There is a lot to take forward, but we must do so with care, together.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate Alex Chalk on securing this important debate. I draw attention to the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Neath (Christina Rees) and for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). There is not enough time for me to mention everybody who spoke because, as usual at the end of these short debates, we are tight for time, but I particularly thank Stuart Blair Donaldson. He spoke of a painful experience, which is always so difficult to do.
Young people are growing up in an age in which online culture and social media are so central to everyday life. That is particularly true of social networking sites, to which more than 85% of children now belong. We have heard some interesting statistics relating to that throughout the debate. Commenting on social media and mental health, the Children’s Commissioner said:
“Excessive use of social media has been linked to poor mental health…When combined with bullying it can have a terrible effect.”
Consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Sebastian Kraemer gave evidence to the Health Committee as part of the inquiry into young people’s mental health mentioned by the hon. Member for Cheltenham. On the impact that digital culture can have, he said:
“It makes intimidation more alarming and more chronic. You can be teased in the playground and it has gone with the wind, but if you have got your photograph on Facebook then it stays there forever…The medium is not the cause, but it certainly facilitates different ways of harming each other, of abusing each other, and that is what young children do.”
Parents are seeing the link. In a survey of more than 1,000 parents with children under 18, four fifths blamed social media for making their children more vulnerable to mental health problems. It seems that the excessive use of social media can be linked to depression and can play a role in heightening underlying anxieties and lowering self-esteem—we have heard about some interesting cases.
These days, there is much concern about body image and appearance, which is another potential cause of anxiety and low self-esteem. It is clear that social media can intensify such feelings. A small study in the United States found that teenagers were affected by the “like” culture, with photos with more likes being more attractive to them. This like culture was found to affect self-esteem, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore both said.
The damaging impact of social media has been seen as one of the causes leading to the increase in the number of children and young people self-harming in the past 10 years. ChildLine has seen a 35% increase in the number of contacts from young people with anxiety. That increase has been linked to the rise of social media, which has increased the pressure to attain a so-called perfect life. With increasing numbers of young people self-harming or being diagnosed with depression or anxiety, will the Minister tell us what action is being taken to understand the possible links between social media and depression, anxiety and other mental health issues? I agree with the hon. Member for Cheltenham that we need a robust strategy and some research that proves the links.
We have heard much about cyber-bullying, which is a growing problem, with more than one in 10 young people admitting they have been affected by it. We heard about Declan; I am very glad to hear that he has moved past the bullying phase that was so affecting him. Bullying UK found that 43% of young people aged between 11 and 16 had been bullied via social networks. Bullying has been found to be a factor associated with children’s mental health issues. One study reported by the Office for National Statistics found that children who had been bullied at 13 were more than twice as likely to have depression at age 18.
Stress and anxiety have also been linked to cyber-bullying. Will the Minister outline what action the Government are taking to tackle cyber-bullying and what measures will be put in place to help young people who are affected? Following the debate on young people’s mental health in the main Chamber last week, my concern is that help is not getting through to children before mental health problems escalate. Indeed, in 2015 the Children’s Commissioner found that one in four young people experiencing serious emotional or psychological problems were being turned away from specialist mental health treatment.
Early intervention can help. Lorraine Khan of the Centre for Mental Health said:
“There is good evidence for a range of interventions to boost children’s mental health, and the sooner effective help is offered the more likely it is to work.”
However, Government cuts to local authority budgets have meant the loss of services for children and young people. Cuts have been made to the numbers of social work staff and educational psychologists, and to mental health services in schools, leading to a reduction in care and support for young people. In the face of such cuts to early intervention and prevention services, will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to develop better early intervention?
From pressures about body image to cyber-bulling and the pressures caused by social networking sites, it is clear that we need to do more research on the impact that social media are having on young people’s mental health. Although Ministers have pledged extra funding for mental health services, we know it is not reaching the front-line services that children and young people need. Schools and colleges must be supported to help their students to cope with the challenges of online culture that we have heard about in this debate. The internet and social media are clearly here to stay, so it is vital that the Government ensure that young people receive the help, support and guidance that they need in this digital age.
I shall do my utmost, Sir Alan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Alex Chalk on securing this very important debate. Contributions have at times been distressing, but they have been hugely important. He is right to raise awareness about the impact of social media on young people’s mental health. I thank all constituents and colleagues who have bravely allowed their stories to be shared today; it does have an impact and it is important.
As Jim Shannon said, in recognising the harms that are occurring on social media, we must not reject the positive role that social media can play. Instead, we have to put social media in their place and know that, like any tool, their impact is dependent on how they are used. How we use social media depends on our intentions, for good or ill, and on our skills.
For the disfranchised and those without a voice, social media have provided a powerful medium for advocacy and outreach, and at times messages that would not otherwise have been heard have found a global reach. Even for the most vulnerable groups, the evidence shows that by no means all influences on social media are negative, and that only a minority of people will use social media to exploit and harm others.
The Samaritans undertook a consultation as part of its Digital Futures project, which looked at how people use online sources in relation to suicidal and self-harm content. The study found that, as well as negative experiences, those who took part in the research also highlighted using the sites to build peer networks. Three quarters of those who took part said that they looked for support online.
If we can harness the power of online platforms, we can use them to deliver the effective prevention interventions that many Members have called for, to raise mental health awareness, and to provide advice and support. Indeed, many of the support organisations that help our young people and adults who experience emotional challenges and issues of poor mental health have a presence on social media. As the Minister with responsibility for public health and innovation, that is something I must encourage.
As constituency MPs and Members of this House, we can all cite examples of social media platforms being used to inflict harm, whether through grooming or cyber-bullying, or of the anxiety and low self-esteem caused through hyper-use, which some Members have described. The Government reject the laissez-faire attitude that says this is all just an inevitable by-product of our connected world and shrugs its shoulders. No child should be groomed, bullied or harassed online, or simply left without the skills they need to critically and sensibly engage with social media.
That is why we are working in partnership with industry, the community and schools to address the challenges. New technology and social media continue to be misused to exploit and target the vulnerable. We have been clear that we expect social media companies to respond quickly to incidents of abusive behaviour on their networks. We have robust legislation in place to deal with internet trolls, cyberstalking and harassment, and perpetrators of grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour. We are absolutely clear that these are crimes, and will be treated as such.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has available various resources, which can be accessed via its website. The “Thinkuknow” programme has web resources to educate and empower young people at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation. I hope that some of them may access that if they are watching the debate. We know that the worst cases of bullying, including cyber-bullying, can lead to serious depression and even thoughts of suicide. A recent study by the national inquiry into homicide and suicide found that bullying—the sense of there being “no escape” was articulated by many colleagues—was a factor in the suicide of children and young people. I particularly thank Declan, the constituent of Stewart Malcolm McDonald, for allowing his story to be told and may I say how sorry I am that he had to go through that experience. We know that we must do better.
That is why all schools are required by law to have a behaviour policy and measures to tackle bullying in all forms among their pupils. Schools are free to develop their strategies, but they are clearly held to account by Ofsted. That is also why the Government Equalities Office announced £4.4 million of extra money to tackle bullying, and why over the next two years four anti-bullying organisations will go in to support schools to tackle bullying and to improve the support that is available. In particular, the GEO has invested £500,000 in the UK Safer Internet Centre to provide advice to schools and professionals on how to keep children safe, and a further £75,000 in CEOP to support a national roll-out of Parent Info, which is delivered through schools, to stop parents feeling helpless because they are not digital natives. It is a free service and helps parents to show their children how to use the internet and mobile devices appropriately.
We are also working with the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which brings together 200 organisations to form the digital resilience working group to take forward work to equip children and young people to identify and respond to risks online, including cyber-bullying and negative influences.
We know, as colleagues have said, that young people, as well as their parents and carers, continue to feel the impact of unrealistic representations of body image, which have a pervasive impact on social media. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham may be aware that the Government launched a body confidence campaign in 2010, which publishes a regular progress report on how we are addressing negative body images to tackle the very “compare and despair” trap that he so rightly highlighted. I agree with him about the importance of prevention and resilience building. A great deal of work is under way to try to target the sources of online abuse and harmful content upstream, at source.
Central to tackling the challenges posed by online bullying, exploitation and self-image will be supporting young people, as well as those who care for them, to build resilience. This year, Public Health England’s £337,000 Rise Above campaign is intended to do just that, building the resilience of young people by providing online information and tackling issues that include body image and online stress.
Alongside supporting young people in developing resilience, we know that parents and schools have a role to play in preventing mental ill-health, and we will continue to work with the Department for Education to improve mental wellbeing in schools, and to support children and teachers in addressing mental health issues through educational resources and by providing single points of contacts for mental health in schools.
My hon. Friend rightly highlighted the good work of the DFE in developing the MindEd web-based tools for children and parents. We are looking for ways in which those tools can be developed further to support local areas and to improve online contact.
Underpinning all of that is the need to tackle the stigma around mental health in all areas of society. That is why we have increased funding for Time to Change, which is our national anti-stigma campaign, to ensure that young people are confident in coming forward to get the help that they need. Underpinning all of that is our programme to reform and improve mental health support for young people. That is why we have increased investment in mental health to £11.7 billion, and local clinical commissioning groups are required to increase spending on mental health each year. That is part of a holistic strategy to improve key areas of mental health services, such as perinatal mental health, services to tackle eating disorders and better crisis care resolution in the community, as laid out in “Future in mind” and “The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health”, so that we can give young people with mental health problems the care and support that they deserve.
My hon. Friend was right when he said that we need to have the proper research in place, because this is an emerging area. That is why the Mental Health Taskforce asked the Department of Health, working with relevant partners, to publish a report by February 2017 to set out a 10-year strategy for mental health research. The final 10-year strategy planned for publication will identify the needs of mental health research. It will include a specific focus on the mental health of children and young people.
We know that there is much more to do and my hon. Friend is aware that the Lords Select Committee inquiry into children’s access to and use of the internet is currently under way. We are watching that closely and will look at its recommendations about online safety and the role that the Government, regulators and media companies can play to protect our children online because we know that more needs to be done.
We recognise the challenge of social media for young people up and down this country. We are determined to do our part to equip them with the tools they need to meet that challenge, not only in terms of their mental health but to protect them online and to make them more resilient and alert to the risks, and to make them confident digital natives who can critically and sensibly harness the power of digital tech for good.
This has been an excellent debate but a debate in name only, because there is a profound consensus about the potential for social media—as well as being a force for good, it can cause harm.
I was very pleased to hear from the Minister that some embryonic research may develop into something more robust. Such research is welcome. That is important because we need that platform to press the social media platforms to do more.
I reiterate the point that, in schools, we expect headteachers to take control, in Parliament, we expect the Speaker to take control and, if people are not behaving properly on social media, the platforms should be robust in dealing with them.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (