Children’s Mental Health Week: Promoting young people’s mental health

Categories: School of Health and Society

To mark Children’s Mental Health Week (6-12 February 2023) Professor Vanessa Heaslip from the University of Salford explores how the effects of social media and the coronavirus pandemic have influenced anxiety levels in children and young people, and some suggestions to help talk to young people about these challenges. 

“Worry is a natural human emotion that most people experience at times. For example, a young person may have feelings of worry and anxiety when starting a new school or before taking exams; this be positive, motivating them to make the effort to connect with others or revise a bit harder! However, worry can escalate to an anxiety disorder if the frequency, intensity and duration of symptoms are having a significant negative effect on everyday life, for example if they feel unable to get out of bed or go to school as a result.

“We know that the increase in the number of young people diagnosed with common mental health disorders in recent years has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Lockdowns reduced social contact, with schools closed and lessons moved online. Pupils reported a reduction in concentration, engagement, learning and self-worth during these online lessons. 

“Studies reported that social isolation and loneliness experienced in lockdowns also increased the risk of depression and anxiety. When schools were closed to most pupils, symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) significantly increased, and overall wellbeing decreased.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, young people also had greater access to social media, due to the lack of school attendance. Digital technology can have benefits, enabling young people to navigate intimate peer relationships, establish autonomy from their parents and explore their identity. 

“Despite this, parents and guardians are often concerned about a link between digital technology and increased feelings of anxiety and depression among young people. Many parents report feeling that they are ‘fighting a losing battle’ against social media due to the content children and young people are exposed to online.

“Young people often post about the positive aspects of their lives and share highly edited images; looking to enhance their self-esteem by receiving validation through ‘likes’. This can affect anxiety levels as young people compare themselves with others, adding external pressure due to the ‘fear of missing out’ and potentially increasing their anxiety if they do not receive the validation they’re looking for.

“However, research on this has produced mixed results; some studies seem to have identified a link between mental health issues such as anxiety and excessive use of social media, while other research has found the effects of social media were small and inconsistent.

“What is clear, is that smartphones continue to be increasingly popular, with 53% of children in the UK having a phone by the age of 7 and four out of five children aged 7-16 able to access the internet in their own room. 87% of those aged 12-15 years use social media sites or software applications (apps), spending up to five hours per day on the internet. 

“Whatever the risk social media may pose, it seems to be a constant in our lives. This means that early identification, support and signposting are crucial to reduce the risk of long-term mental health issues. There are many services available for young people, from low-level support to high-intensity interventions. For example, a young person with low-to-moderate anxiety could speak to their GP, community nurses, charities or education mental health practitioners (trained professionals who work in schools’ mental health support teams delivering low-intensity interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy).

“Other talking therapies that may be helpful for young people experiencing anxiety include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), which can be accessed through GPs, education mental health practitioners or private counselling. Talking therapies offer the young person an opportunity to discuss their experiences with a trained professional who can support them to develop strategies to manage their anxiety.

“In the context of social media and mental health, there are simple strategies that parents or guardians can discuss with young people. These include promoting a ‘digital detox’, spending quality time undertaking other activities together, away from your phones. Such strategies have been shown to be beneficial; one study found that a seven-day absence from social media was associated with an increase in mental wellbeing and social connectedness. Turning phones off at least an hour before going to bed is also important, as this can affect sleeping patterns.”

Suggestions when talking about mental health

  • Be authentic, making sure the young person feels you really want to know how they are
  • Listen and reflect using open questions such as ‘How have you been feeling?’ and ‘What is that like for you?’. Give the person the opportunity to explain what they are experiencing and what it is like for them rather than making assumptions about this. Use closed questions for clarification, such as ‘You say you have felt like this for the past week, is that correct?’
  • Paraphrase what the person has said back to them to show you are listening and to reduce potential misunderstandings. For example, ‘You say you are currently experiencing trouble sleeping, is this correct?’
  • Be patient, remembering that it is challenging for some people to express how they feel. The person may need to develop a rapport with you before they feel comfortable sharing their feelings and thoughts
  • Show empathy, appreciating how they may be feeling
  • Ask how you can help, giving the person the opportunity to tell you what they need, then taking appropriate action

Further resources

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