More than eight in 10 young people think social media companies should do more to tackle cyberbullying, according to a poll released this week by YoungMinds and The Children’s Society.
Our survey – of more than 1,000 people aged 11-25 – suggests that large numbers of young people have experienced threatening or abusive messages, been excluded from conversations or groups online, received persistent messages from people who they don’t want to hear from, or had private or embarrassing information shared publicly.
While bullying has always existed, the rise of social media means that it now often no longer ends at the school gates. Many of the young people we work with have talked about the pressure that round-the-clock online harassment puts on them, how trapped it makes them feel, and how it can seem like there’s no escape.
That’s why we are delighted to be supporting the inquiry launching in parliament this week into the impact of online bullying on young people’s mental health. The inquiry, led by Alex Chalk MP, will hear from young people, experts and social media companies, and publish recommendations early next year.
So what can social media companies actually do? The young people who responded to our survey focused on three areas:
Prevention Social media companies could do more to explain what is and isn’t acceptable language and behaviour, to make their house rules clear, and to communicate clearly things like privacy settings and how to report and block content.
Response When cyberbullying is reported, young people often feel like social media companies don’t respond quickly enough, or take enough action. When no action is taken, there’s too often a lack of transparency about why that decision has been taken.
Promoting good mental health More generally, young people want social media companies to do more to promote good mental health and to signpost people to support.
We’re excited to see how this inquiry can work with social media companies to look at these issues, and we’re delighted that so many companies have agreed to take part.
But while there are important steps that the industry can take, we know that these can never be the full solution. Education is also vital, to ensure that children are equipped to deal with the pressures they face online.
Schools can play a big role in helping children develop ‘digital literacy’, so that they can understand the positives and negatives of social media, recognise steps they can take to filter content, and make informed decisions about the risks.
Schools can also help children develop the resilience to cope when things go wrong, for example if they see upsetting images or have concerns about a friend.
And, crucially, they can support children and young people to understand their own responsibilities – in particular, to recognise that how they act online has the same implications as how they act offline.
In our Wise Up campaign, we are calling for the government to rebalance the education system, so that schools have the resources and recognition they need to make the wellbeing of children a priority.
As part of this, we believe that ‘digital resilience’ should be a compulsory element of the national curriculum. So we welcome the fact that there will be a focus on the mental health effects of the online world in the new Relationship and Sex Education lessons that the government has announced, and we look forward to seeing what this means in practice.
Of course, it’s important to recognise that social media can have huge benefits for young people’s mental health. 60% of those who filled in our survey said that it had a positive effect on their relationship with their friends, while others talked about how it can provide a sense of community when they feel isolated or help them to build self-expression and identity.
But young people also say that social media puts pressure on them to create a personal brand from a young age, to live their lives in public, and to compare themselves unfavourably with the ‘perfect lives’ that others present to the world.
That’s why the inquiry launching this week is so welcome. We need to make sure that young people get the best out of the online world, and we need to work together to develop innovative ways to promote good mental health.
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