Fears social media is fuelling teen suicides

Crisis: Official figures will be released by the Office for National Statistics in September.

Yesterday, The Sunday Times reported that teenage suicides in England have nearly doubled in eight years. Now the government is calling on social media to do more to protect young people.

It is 14 months since teenager Molly Russell died, and her father, Ian, is sure that social media played a part. Last week, he said he had “no doubt” that sites like Instagram and Pinterest had helped to kill his daughter by showing her distressing images of self-harm.

The inquest into Molly’s suicide is still ongoing. But the head of the UK’s national suicide prevention strategy, Louis Appleby, says there is a danger that “we are presiding over a suicidal generation of young people”.

In fact, yesterday, The Sunday Times reported that teenage suicides have almost doubled in eight years in England. Official figures will not be published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) until September. But journalists said they had learnt that suicide rates were rising among 15 to 19-year-olds, yet declining for most other age groups.

The education minister, Damian Hinds, told the paper that social media companies had a “moral duty” to protect young people. They have “changed the way human beings interact with each other,” he argued, and “absolutely have a responsibility” to do good.

This month the government will go even further, saying that companies like Facebook and Google have a “duty of care” towards young people. They will publish plans for new laws which ask tech companies to remove inappropriate references to suicide and self-harm. If they refuse, a new regulator will step in, potentially imposing huge fines.

In addition to these plans, this week England’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, will recommend that parents ban smartphones at dinner and before bedtime. She will suggest that young people take breaks from screens every two hours.

But is that enough? Back in 2017, an OECD survey found that British teenagers are among the unhappiest in the world. While they spend some of the most time online, they are also more anxious about school and more likely to be bullied than teenagers in most other countries.

If you are struggling with self-harm or suicidal thoughts, you can find resources and advice under Become An Expert.

Head space

Is social media to blame for young people’s mental health struggles? Even without accounts that glorify self-harm, there is still a lot of pressure to look and act a certain way online. Then there is the risk of cyberbullying. Should the minimum age be raised to 18? What about teenagers who find genuine support or advice online?

Of course, mental health problems are complex; they never have just one cause. Experts have also blamed young people’s problems on exam stress, family issues and a lack of youth mental health services. Which of these is the most important? And what can society do to make life better for young people?

You Decide

  1. What age should people be allowed to start using social media?
  2. Why does Britain have some of the world’s most unhappy teenagers?

Activities

  1. Write down three reasons why you think teenagers in the UK are struggling with mental health issues. Then write three potential solutions.
  2. Create a poster or leaflet which gives advice about mental health to someone who is a few years younger than you. Use the resources under Become An Expert to help.

Some People Say...

“The internet has been a boon and a curse for teenagers.”

J.K. Rowling

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
One in eight (12.8%) young people aged five to 19 had a mental health disorder in England in 2017, according to the NHS. This included “emotional, behavioural, hyperactivity and other less common disorders.” Among 17 to 19-year-olds, it was one in six, or 16.9%. Of the 11 to 16-year-olds with a mental disorder, a quarter (25.5%) had self-harmed or attempted suicide.
What do we not know?
The causes of mental health disorders in young people — partly because there is never a single cause. However, risk factors can include quality of life, relationships with families, exploring gender or sexual identity, and pressure from peers and the media. Young people are also more vulnerable to mental health conditions as their brains are still developing.

Word Watch

Self-harm
Deliberately hurting yourself.
Inquest
An official inquiry into a person’s death. The coroner who is leading Molly Russell’s case has asked technology companies, including Apple, YouTube and Facebook, to hand over information about her accounts.
Suicide
Deliberately taking your own life.
Rising
In 2010, suicide rates among teenagers were just over three in every 100,000. In 2018, the figure was “more than five” in every 100,000.
Regulator
An independent body appointed by the government that oversees and regulates an industry. For example, in the UK, Ofcom is the communications regulator, overseeing television, the internet, radio and postal services.
OECD
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The survey interviewed half a million 15-year-olds across 34 different countries.
Lack
Last month, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee said that only one third of young people with mental health conditions were getting the right treatment from the NHS. Today the government will launch new schemes to boost mental health in schools.