9th November 2022

Mental Health and the Online World: what do children say?

In The Big Ask,  The majority of children aged 9—17 (80%) were happy or okay with their mental health. But 20% were unhappy, making it the top issue for children today. Children also spoke about how social media interacted with their mental health.

This is why two of my biggest priorities as Children’s Commissioner are ensuring that all children have easy access to mental health support, and that they are safe when they are online. These two priorities are closely interlinked. Last month I invited Ian and Janet Russell, founders of the Molly Rose Foundation, set up in loving memory of their daughter Molly Russell, to come and share their policy ideas on creating a safer online world with the office. We discussed how vital it is for improved access to mental health support to happen in tandem with reforms to protect children on social media and in the online world.

I have continually heard about the impact of the online world on children’s mental health since becoming the Commissioner. Children very frequently speak to me about how social media affects their mental health.  One 16-year-old boy told me:

“Social media […] has a major negative impact on mental health relationships”

Children also frequently tell me how the perception of ‘perfection’ on social media can lead to unhealthy comparison between young people:

“On social media people also only share perfect pictures which can make young children and teenagers feel insecure about their life and bodies society also has a way of showing young minds that things like being straight or white is the normal this is how racism and homophobia grows” Girl, 13, children’s home

Worryingly, children have also pointed out to me how they are unprotected from harmful content online, and how easy it is to access negative harmful content:

“The amount of negative things on social media and people getting told to kill themselves daily and not enough support for mental health” – Girl, 14, living with foster parents

The connection between the use of social media and mental health is worrying and undeniable. I believe that there is a real opportunity to be grasped at this moment, as reforms are being considered across the system. The Government is soon to respond to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. We have a Green Paper on supporting children with special education needs and disabilities. Health is facing yet another structural shake up with the introduction of Integrated Care Systems. Now is the time to finally make sure that health, education and social care stop pulling in different directions, and start pulling together.

Parliament is due to pass the Online Safety Bill, landmark legislation – and the first of its kind – which will enshrine a new “duty of care” for online platforms. For the first time, companies will be required to deal with the physical and psychological harms to children – and will held accountable where they put children at risk. The rules will apply to the biggest internet giants where we know a great deal of harm takes place.

I will continue to follow the Bill’s passage closely, ensuring that it keeps children’s needs for protection at its heart. This includes engaging with children and conducting research, quantitative and qualitative, on the impact of harmful online content on young minds.