Dr Mary McCarthy: Action needed over social media perils

The internet, particularly social media, seems to have spread everywhere without our even noticing it.

Children have absorbed the techniques required more quickly than adults – I recently saw a two-year-old in the waiting room recently swiping the pages of a book rather than trying to turn the page.

Ten and eleven-year-olds are posting videos of their dance moves and communication is now a text or WhatsApp rather than a conversation.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to bully and harass has grown just as fast and this is now being reflected in the mental health of young people.

A report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists has called for social media companies to hand over their data, so that research can be done into the harm or possible benefit of using social media and so that, if necessary, protective measures can be put in place.

Dr Andrew Molodynski, the British Medical Association’s mental health policy lead, said that the rapid rise of social media-related mental health issues among young people is frightening, and that there is a need for those in positions of power to ensure online protection for vulnerable people.

He points out that the speed with which the internet and social media has developed means that safeguards have not been implemented, particularly in the case of self-harm-related content which is visible to children and adolescents.

Binding standards should be put in place to make sure social media networks do not promote self-harm and suicide.

Such sites are all too visible, and must be subject to appropriate penalties, including prosecution, if they fail to comply with regulations.

Schools are doing their best to educate even primary school pupils on the risks of social media.

They encourage children to THINK before using social media – is what you’re posting or looking at True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary or Kind – but the Government and social media companies must also play their part.

As the BMA’s statement says, they have a responsibility to protect young people from the risks of social harm which can, unfortunately, have fatal consequences.

The mental health services are already struggling through lack of staff and resources, but the addition of a cohort of young people who are being actively damaged through social media sites is more than they can cope with.

Help is often difficult to access and the waiting time for mental health appointments for young people is known to be much too long for a safe service.

Mental health services have always been the ‘poor relation’ of the National Health Service and when the whole system is under pressure, this stress is felt more acutely in mental health teams.

Adolescents and young adults are at a vulnerable period in their lives and they need protection from sites that encourage harm as a way of dealing with problems.

Dr Molodynski’s statement ends, “We need to see action now”.

We really do.

* Dr Mary McCarthy is chair of the local medical committee and represents Shropshire, North Staffordshire and South Staffordshire on the General Practitioners Committee of the BMA. She has worked at Belvidere Surgery in Shrewsbury for more than 20 years.

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