Social media, young people and mental health
The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care spoke at the Bright Blue and Barnado's conference 'Left to their own devices?'
An Irishman, a Barbadian and a Kiwi…
Sorry, there’s no punchline – I just wanted to talk about our brilliant England cricket team…
…And our brilliant England captain, star bowler and star batsman, and this entire generation of brilliant England cricketers, who come from so many different backgrounds, and from all over the world, to play for our country.
Because these guys – like the England Women’s World Cup winning team in 2017 – are role models to so many boys and girls in this country.
And it’s a sign of how far we’ve come since Norman Tebbit’s infamous ‘cricket test’ that nobody cares where you come from, only where you want to call home.
Our sporting role models now reflect what our country looks like – and this is a huge sign of progress, not least because we’re now actually winning things.
Because I think we sometimes forget what the recent past was really like – things weren’t always better for children and teenagers before smartphones and social media.
By most metrics it’s never been better: smoking is down, alcohol misuse is down, drug abuse is down. More young people are staying in school and going to university than ever before.
But each new age brings new challenges.
This afternoon some of the biggest social media companies in the world – Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google, YouTube, Tumblr and Snapchat – all came together at the Department for Health and Social Care…
…the Matt Hancock app was also represented.
And what we discussed is exactly what we’re talking about tonight – young people, social media and mental health. And the word that kept coming up – and not just from me – was responsibility.
It was clear: the penny’s dropped – social media companies get that they have a social responsibility, and that we all have a shared responsibility for the health and wellbeing of our children.
This was the third social media summit I’ve called this year, and so far we’ve managed to get the big tech firms – which includes Twitter – to agree to remove suicide and self-harm content, and start addressing the spread of anti-vax misinformation, Instagram have introduced a new anti-bullying tool, and they’ve all repeated to me that they recognise they have a duty of care to their users, particularly children and young people.
The next step is research. Today, we agreed that we must build a scientifically-rigorous evidence base so we can better understand the health impact of social media, and so we can better identify what more we need to do to keep our children safe online.
We will use the data social media companies hold for social good. Because, while we’ve made significant progress these past few months, there is much more still to do.
And I have made it crystal-clear that if they don’t collaborate, we will legislate.
So today, we agreed to start a new strategic partnership between the Samaritans and ‘the big 6’: Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google, YouTube and Twitter.
We want the social media companies to contribute at least £1 million to get this partnership off the ground. The government is playing a leading role in bringing this partnership together, and we have committed £100,000.
Our mission will be to follow the evidence: develop a scientifically based understanding of what the challenge is, and what resources, support and guidelines we need to establish to better protect children and young people online.
Because technology isn’t the problem: cars don’t kill people because of a design flaw. People die in car crashes, most of the time, due to human error.
The challenge with social media is also a human challenge.
Are humans going to do the right thing?
Are social media companies going to play their part by making their services safer?
Are governments going to hold these companies to account?
And how are we going to support parents and carers to keep their children safe and healthy online?
Essentially, we’re all going to have to live up to our responsibilities.
And I believe we will. For 2 reasons.
First: history shows us that new technologies sometimes develop faster than our ability to fully understand their impact, but when we do catch up, we act.
It took a century of speed limits, vehicle inspections, traffic lights, drink-driving laws, seatbelt legislation, to make driving as safe as it is now.
And we’re still not done, because driver-less cars will be the next step – proof that progress is driven both by advances in understanding and improvements in the technology itself.
And proof that progress, itself, is never complete.
I also take inspiration from the first modern labour law in this country, introduced by a Conservative: Robert Peel, father to Sir Robert Peel, one of our greatest prime ministers.
The 1802 Health and Morals of Apprentices Act recognised that cotton mill owners needed to better protect the children working with this new-fangled machinery.
Now, it took a few more decades, and a few more factory acts, before child labour was outlawed altogether, but that first Factory Act, introduced by a Conservative mill owner, started the course of gradual improvements to make the world of work safer for children, women and men.
The history of technology, the history of humanity itself, is one of gradual improvements. Now, that’s not to say we need to wait decades for change to happen.
The pace of technological transformation is faster now than at any point in history so we must pick up the pace of progress to make this technology safer, sooner.
Look at it this way: Facebook is 15 years old now, which in tech years is about… 46. They’ve even appointed Nick Clegg – and you don’t get more of a grown-up than Sir Nick.
So this technology is maturing, there’s more middle-aged people now using Facebook than teenagers, and through improving our understanding and improving the technology, we can make it safer for everyone.
Second: Mental health, thanks to the actions of this Prime Minister, and her predecessor, is finally being talked about, and taken as seriously as physical health.
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We’ve started a fundamental shift in how we think about mental health in this country, and the approach the NHS will take to preventing, treating and supporting good mental health in the future.
And I think it’s very important that we talk about the impact of social media, and the wellbeing of young people, in this wider context of good mental health: how do we promote and encourage good mental health?
So the third, and final thing, I’d like to touch on tonight is resilience, which is really another way of saying prevention: the guiding principle of the NHS over the next decade.
How can we help people, particularly children and young people, become more resilient?
This isn’t about telling people to toughen up – it’s about teaching people the cognitive and emotional skills they need to deal with adversity.
It’s about promoting positive mental health and preventing problems from causing illness.
Because life will throw you challenges, times of stress and adversity – losing a job, divorce, bereavement. It’s how we respond, how resilient we are, that ultimately determines the impact on our mental health.
The child development expert, Professor Ann Masten, puts it brilliantly:
"Resilience does not come from rare and special qualities, but from the everyday magic of ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children."
Everyday magic. Resilience isn’t a fixed attribute. It’s something we can teach. It’s something that can be learned.
It’s an essential life skill that we should equip every child and young person with, so they can meet challenges head-on, face adversity, learn and grow, and improve as a person.
And that’s exactly the approach we’re taking.
We’re working with our colleagues at the Department for Education to equip and empower children, from a young age, with this essential life skill.
Teaching resilience, along with self-respect and self-worth, learning about the importance of honesty, courage, kindness, generosity, trustworthiness and justice.
Values to live by, and vital to our mental health.
We’re also teaching children about the dangers of fake news and why truth matters – whether it’s falsehoods about vaccines or falsehoods about people.
As a parent, I want to protect my children from the dangers in this world, but I know I can’t be with them every minute of the day – I don’t think they’d like it very much if I tried.
But I hope that what I’ve taught them will help prepare them for the challenges they will face in the future.
As parents, as a society, we can’t remove every challenge, but we can teach young people how to overcome them, how to cope with adversity, and how to become more resilient.
So it comes down to this:
Responsibility: everybody playing their part – social media companies, government, parents and carers.
Research: building the evidence base to improve our understanding, and improve the technology.
Resilience: teaching the right way to respond to challenges.
That’s how we protect our children. And that’s how we build a safer, healthier world for them to grow up in.