Social Media, Social Responsibility: Why Online Platforms And Government Must Work Together On Young People’s Mental Health

When the concerning case of Girl X made headlines recently, it simply provided more evidence of the parlous state of mental health support for young people in the UK.

It is estimated that over a quarter of young people referred to CAMHS across England in 2015 were not allocated treatment. The Health Secretary himself has cited young people's mental health services as "possibly the biggest single area of weakness in NHS provision at the moment", while the President of the High Court's Family Division used the case of Girl X to highlight a "disgraceful and utterly shaming" systemic lack of support.

Alarming statistics and statements of this kind make the forthcoming Government green paper on young people's mental health, announced in the most recent Queen's Speech, vitally important. Alongside support for frontline services however, consideration must also be given to the largely online-oriented nature of young people's lives today. Research has found that young people on average spend three hours each day online, rising to almost five hours among 15-16 year-olds. This trend must be acknowledged, and more done to harness the potential of online content and digital technology to promote good outcomes.

Young people's online engagement represents an opportunity to develop advice and support services in line with and responsive to their needs and expectations of those services. For example, many young people with mental health worries are reluctant to use traditional community-based support in physical NHS buildings, wary of the stigma which can be attached to these services among their peer group. Support offered in the privacy of an online setting can avoid this difficulty.

Technology allows young people to access help in a format and at a time and place which suits them. A greater emphasis on digital support could mean young people accessing support earlier, catching nascent mental health issues before they can develop into more significant problems further down the line. Allowing young people to take control of the support they receive, by putting online help in their hands, is not only a worthwhile goal in its own right but may also achieve better outcomes for the system as a whole.
Government has already begun to move in this direction, having allocated £500,000 to develop digital tools and apps focusing on improving mental health. Innovation is also happening at a local level: in Birmingham for example, the YouthSpace programme offers online advice, information, and basic online cognitive behavioural therapy for young people in need of support. And there is increasing interest in online platforms providing on-demand consultation with trained therapists via smartphones or tablets, a potentially powerful tool to improve the accessibility of mental health support for young people.

In order to scale up innovation of this kind, ResPublica's latest report Making Young Minds Matter recommends that Government establish a dedicated young people's mental health and technology fund, to invest in new digital and online support. Crucially, we argue that Government should work with social media companies in establishing this fund, which should consist of voluntary contributions from these companies which are then match-funded by Government.

Research from organisations such as the Education Policy Institute and Royal Society of Public Health has demonstrated the negative impact of social media platforms on young people's mental health, for example through exacerbating body image concerns, facilitating online bullying, and worsening feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness. It is therefore appropriate and reasonable that the companies who operate these social media forums contribute to the cost of treating and alleviating these problems.

This is not a question of scapegoating these organisations - the causes of deteriorating mental wellbeing among young people are complex and varied, and it must also be acknowledged that social media by its nature can also act as an important source of peer and external support for young people. But we believe that in light of the (unintended, yet demonstrable) effects of the services they provide, these organisations have a social responsibility which should not be ignored.

Some social media firms have suffered negative press in recent years over suggestions that they are not fully meeting their UK tax obligations; our recommendation by contrast offers a way for them to demonstrate their commitment to securing the UK's social good. However, if this cooperative approach proves unworkable, we recommend Government should instead impose a levy on the turnover of such companies, for the same purpose.

A greater emphasis on digital and online support cannot be a substitute for proper investment in frontline clinical services or additional preventative and early intervention activity. But it must be a central element of any credible strategy to address the developing crisis in young people's mental health support, and Government must work with - and where necessary, compel reasonable contributions from - those organisations, including social media companies, who operate in this space.

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