Psychiatrists should consider impact of social media on all children they assess, leading medical body says for first time

30 March 2019

Psychiatrists are being advised to consider the impact of social media on all children they assess for mental health problems.

Questions about technology use should be a routine part of those assessments given growing evidence of possible links between harmful content or excessive time spent online and poor mental health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) says.

It is the first time RCPsych, the professional medical body responsible for supporting psychiatrists and raising UK psychiatric standards, has made the call.

Factors psychiatrists are being urged to consider include:

  • Harmful content especially material which could impact on an existing mental illness, such as self-harm photos or images which promote eating disorders
  • How problematic technology use could be related to problems such as lack of/disrupted sleep, poor academic performance, low mood, and behavioural or eating difficulties
  • That conditions such as depression or eating disorders may make children more likely to spend too long online or use technology in a way that is harmful

RCPsych’s call comes as the Government is expected to announce plans for an independent regulator which would enforce a new statutory code of conduct on social media companies – which the College has endorsed.

It has also called publicly for social media firms to help fund new research into the links between technology use and mental illness.

These calls will be included in a report the RCPsych is planning to publish later this year about its stance on technology use and children’s mental health.

RCPsych is concerned that the longer children spend online, the less time they have for day-to-day activities that are crucial to children’s development and wellbeing, such as getting enough sleep, eating well and having face-to-face conversations with their friends and family.

RCPsych recommends that children stop using technology at least an hour before going to bed and avoid using technology at mealtimes.

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty at RCPsych, said: “Although we recognise that social media and technology are not primary drivers of mental illness in young people, we know that they are an important part of their lives and can be harmful in some situations.

“As a frontline clinician, I regularly see young people who have deliberately hurt themselves after discussing self-harm techniques online.

“Clinicians recognise the well-known phenomena of young people copying each other’s harmful behaviour while on inpatient units, but it’s even more worrying to see this replicated in the online world where audiences are so much bigger. 

“We’re also finding that some young people report being recommended harmful content; for example, links to websites encouraging weight loss or displaying self-harm after searching for, or clicking on, similar content just once before.

“It’s incredibly important that as clinicians we consider whether social media is impacting on the mental health of the children and young people we treat so that we can try to address any additional causes of their mental distress early.”

RCPsych president Professor Wendy Burn, said: “Digital technology is moving fast and we must make sure clinicians are keeping up with this.

“We desperately need more research into the benefits and harms of technology use, but until then we need to be mindful that many young people’s lives are now being dominated by the online world.” 

Notes to editors 

About the Royal College of Psychiatrists
  1. We are the professional medical body responsible for supporting over 18,000 psychiatrists in the UK and internationally. 
  2. We set standards and promote excellence in psychiatry and mental healthcare. 
  3. We lead, represent and support psychiatrists nationally and internationally to governments and other agencies.
  4. We aim to improve the outcomes of people with mental illness, and the mental health of individuals, their families and communities. We do this by working with patients, carers and other organisations interested in delivering high-quality mental health services.
 

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