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Last updated: 06.02.20

Breaking down the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report on technology and mental health

The Royal College of Psychiatrists recently released a report titled ‘Technology use and the mental health of children and young people’, which, as the title suggests, explores the different impacts of technology on children and young people’s mental health.

The effects of technology is not a new topic. There have been growing concerns about it over the last decade but this report provides a very balanced view – acknowledging both the positives and the negatives. It offers a comprehensive collation of all the areas we need to be concerned about, what can be done to help and further steps to take.

What does the report say?

Digital technology is here to stay. The report recognises that there are many benefits, such as providing platforms for exploration, learning and creativity, and we must not lose sight of these. But it also stresses that we need to be mindful of the way children and young people use technology today, especially the context in which it is used and the content which is being viewed.

Drawing from other reports and research, as well as their own, the report explores specific challenges and their impacts on mental health. It also provides guidance and recommendations for parents, children, educators, clinicians, government and technology companies, acknowledging that they all have different roles in ensuring that technology is safe for, or used safely by, children and young people.

Alarming statistics

Here is a selection of recent statistics that are quoted in the report in order to put their concerns into context:

  • 77% of 12-15-year-olds watch TV, plays games and go online for 47.5 hours a week (about 7 hours a day)
  • 81% of 8-11-year-olds spend 37.5 hours a week in total (about 5 hours a day)
  • 66% of 5-7-year-olds spend 30 hours a week (about 4 hours a day)
  • 40% of 3-4-year-olds spend 29 hours a week (about 4 hours a day)

A UK survey of 16-25-year-olds revealed:

  • 57% reported that social media creates a pressure to succeed
  • 48% said that they felt more anxious about their future when seeing their lives of their friends online

The challenges

They highlight numerous potential challenges to the health and wellbeing of children and young people, such as:

  • The time spent on devices at the expense of other activities, such as face-to-face interactions, sleep and exercise
  • Distressing online content
  • Experiences of online bullying
  • Potential of exploitation
  • The ease and speed which money can be spent on purchases such as games, online gambling, and prescription or illegal drugs
  • The potential of digital technology to affect weight, mood, thoughts of suicide and self-harm, and distortion of body image
  • Technology addiction

It also stresses that not all children are impacted in the same way. Though the research into this is in its early days, they say that different groups – especially those who are vulnerable, or who are already dealing with mental health issues – may be more susceptible to the negative impact of technology.

Recommendations for children and young people

The report encourages a healthy attitude towards technology use – recommending the need for balance and boundaries. Though they acknowledge the benefits it can bring, they understand that technology use can get out of hand, and so digital resilience must be developed.

Various topics are outlined, for example:

  • How to build awareness of when they are using technology as a way of coping with anxiety or when they are upset, and assessing if it is in a beneficial way of not.
  • The possibility of coming across disturbing or distressing content and what to do
  • How technology affects sleep and ways to combat it
  • The requirement of a balance between online and offline activities
  • The importance of online safety, especially around sharing personal information and meeting people online

Recommendations for parents or carers

The main pieces of advice for parents or carers are: the importance of discussing the topic with their children, encouraging them to be mindful about their technology use and the necessity of setting good habits and examples. It is also recommends that they consider safeguarding issues – thinking about their child’s safety and advising how to interact safely online.

The report recognises age differences, saying it will be easier to form habits the younger the child is. But as the child gets older, it’s important to encourage open, honest talks. If children are able to discuss their worries, parents and carers will have more opportunities to offer support and help create and maintain boundaries around technology use.

Recommendations for educators

Educators must recognise their role in educating and sharing safe online practices. They should have policies in place; seek out and share best practices; encourage the sharing of concerns with the mental health leads and parents; use resources and toolkits, and, like the parents, address and discuss the topic with the students.

But, alongside all this, they should be empowering children to use technology responsibly and as an aid for their learning.

Recommendations for clinicians

Clinicians need to be mindful of the impact of technology and take note of the online world, as it is just as important to children and young people as the offline world. They need to be aware that technology use can affect sleep, mood, behaviour, academic performance and eating, and so should be taken into consideration if a child or young person seems to be suffering or struggling in any of these areas.

Recommendations for government

They refer to the government’s recent White Paper ‘Online Harms’, which outlined how the government is going to approach online safety. The Royal College of Psychiatrists welcomed their ideas, such as appointing an independent regulator for online safety who will encourage and monitor companies’ commitment to sharing data.

They make various recommendations. These include suggesting the government puts pressure on gaming and social media providers to allow access to the essential data required to accurately establish behavioural trends and insights. They also suggest establishing a tax on the tech companies, which will be used to fund independent research and training packages.

Recommendations for technology companies

Technology companies should play a more active role in supporting people’s mental health by funding relevant research and providing user data, flagging engagement with risky content and promoting and contributing to mental health charities.

Conclusion

Overall, the report recognises that the impact of technology on mental health is not simple, and there are lots of factors involved. They stress that it is not just about the amount of screen time, but instead we need to consider the context in which the technology is being used, the content that is being interacted with, and the different types of users.

It makes two important points.

First, it stresses that there is not enough quality, and longitudinal research available to truly understand the impacts of technology, and makes an urgent call for the government to get involved to help fund the research.

Secondly, it acknowledges what we can do in the meantime, which is to take a mindful approach to technology use and find ways of empowering children and young people to develop greater self-control and digital literacy in order to become digital resilient.

The full report: Technology use and the mental health of children and young people

To learn more about how to protect and safeguard children effectively, view our courses here or alternatively if you would like to discuss how we can help your organisation with safeguarding training, contact us

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