How we are helping to protect children in Sevenoaks from digital harm

Today is Global Safer Internet Day. It could not be more timely. Up and down the country, reports of social media being linked to teenage depression, anxiety, self-harm and even suicide, are becoming ever more common. The recent tragic deaths of 14-year-old Molly Russell and 16-year-old Leilani Clarke who both killed themselves in their bedrooms after accessing online suicide related content are no longer “one-offs”. Provisional data from the Office of National Statistics show that between 2013 and 2017, there was an 82 per cent increase in suicides in the under 15s, and a recent three year study into hundreds of teenage suicides shows that a quarter had used the internet in a way that was suicide-related, and one in 25 had visited websites where suicide was encouraged.

Suicide is not the only problem affecting children’s mental wellbeing today. According to a major report by NHS Digital last November one in eight children in England  now suffer from a mental health disorder, a significant increase on a decade ago, and one in 18 pre-school children (5.5 per cent) suffer from at least one disorder. The causes are multi-faceted, but pressure from social media and cyber-bullying, school testing, and family breakdown all play a part. As one Headmaster of a Sevenoaks school told me only last week:

“Whilst it used to be the case that if a child had a hard time at school at least they could go home, switch off and relax. Now there is no escape. Children as young as five are on devices all the time and the online discussion never stops”.

The fact that the Government is publishing a white paper later this month making new demands on social media companies to protect young people is very welcome, as is yesterday’s announcement by the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, that he will be unveiling plans later this month to ensure that teenagers have lessons on how to deal with the pressures of social media to stem the rising tide of self-harm.

But as elected representatives and parents, we can’t wait for the Government or internet providers to clean up social media sites and make the internet a safe place for our children. Nor should we. Parents and children need help right now to navigate the unchartered waters of the internet. Only half of all households with children, aged seven to 15, have parental controls or broadband filters to block out adult or illegal content, and almost half of all ten year olds now own a smartphone.

It is vital, therefore, that we equip young children with the skills they need to stay safe online and to help them develop good digital habits while they are you. At Sevenoaks District Council, we are doing just that. Using our extensive links with schools, charities, and parents, we have designed an array of internet safety measures for primary aged children including games, quizzes, challenges, and parent discussion groups. These raise the awareness among primary aged children of the dangers of indiscriminate use of the internet and social media sites, while at the same time seeking to empower the children to become self-regulating in their use of devices, especially at night.

Last year, rather then burden schools and/or parents with more detailed guidelines and information, we issued a simple challenge to the children of Kent to challenge themselves to go seven days from 7pm to 7am without their devices – the #DigitalSunsetChallenge. Harder hitting cyber-bullying and sexting workshops are also delivered in secondary schools across Sevenoaks, as well as encouraging youth theatre productions which deal with online bullying.

Advice over the weekend from a leading mental health nurse that “parents should remove mobile phones, iPads, and any other device from their bedrooms of all children under 16” is long overdue, especially for primary aged children. For older children too, especially those showing signs of depression or self-harm, this is an obvious step to take, not least because of the clear link between lack of sleep and poor concentration, irritability, anxiety, and depression.

Calls to raise the minimum age for opening a social media account from 13 to 18 are also helpful and well-intended, but will not solve the problem since recent research by the Children’s Commissioner showed that three out of four children aged eight to 12 now have their own accounts and, in addition, in the six months following it being an offence for an adult to send a sexual message to a child, 1,316 offences were recorded by the police.

Ultimately, living in a digital world requires adults and children to develop healthy digital habits, including the ability to self-regulate their time online. The earlier these new life-skills are acquired, the better.

However, as a society, we need to go much further both to understand and to tackle the underlying social causes of social media addiction and its link to depression, anxiety, and self-harm. Social prescribing is already proving to be an extremely valuable tool in tackling the non-medical reasons why people visit their GP, thus saving the NHS money and enabling people to access appropriate care in the community. However, the service is currently aimed primarily at those who can attend their GP during the day.

Teenage social prescribers are required in secondary schools on a rotating basis. They should be equipped with mental health and counselling skills to spot signs of serious depression, but also sufficient knowledge to give “low risk” teenagers advice on healthy living, diet, exercise, and mindfulness. They should be able to direct them to low cost sporting or social activities taking place in their area. Equally, an annual or biannual online mental health check-up should be compulsory for all teenagers attending secondary school in the UK. Regular immunization and physical checks have radically reduced the number of deaths from certain diseases and cancers. There is no reason to assume that a regular mental health snapshot would not have the same benefit over time. There is widespread expert agreement that modern life is increasingly stressful for teenagers, but it needs to be accompanied by accurate widespread monitoring of stress and anxiety levels amongst teenagers.

Finally, education regarding the importance for young children of a varied digital diet accompanied by a regular digital sunset needs to become a compulsory part of the new year six transitional PSHEE curriculum. Joining the 2019 Sevenoaks #DigitalSunsetChallenge would be a good start.

This article was first published on www.conservativehome.com on 5th February 2019