internetA focus on ‘digital resilience’ is needed to ensure that the online world does not damage young people’s mental health, according to a new report.

The report, Resilience for the Digital World, by YoungMinds and Ecorys, argues that building young people’s ‘digital resilience’ – their ability to respond positively and deal with risks they encounter online – is vital, rather than focusing solely on protecting them from risky content. Dealing with online pressures has to date been viewed mainly through a protection lens, but there now needs to be more emphasis on helping young people to build their own digital resilience so they can get the best from the online world, the report says.

Sarah Brennan, chief executive of YoungMinds, said: “Our research shows that children and young people understand the online world a lot better than most adults, they are active creators of content, and are discerning when it comes to navigating social media. They’re more likely to listen to other young people, including older siblings, than adults warning them about the dangers of the online world.

“It’s important to encourage children to stay safe, but we should also encourage them to create positive content, to offer support to others who are struggling, to build empathy and responsibility, to identify and deal with challenging content, and to explore how to balance their lives online and offline.”

The report stresses that the digital world can offer huge social and emotional benefits, and that many young people with mental health conditions go online to research their conditions and reach out for support. But messages, images and peer discussion can also reinforce negative beliefs, while excessive use of social media is associated with depression and lower self-esteem. Some dedicated sites on the so-called dark net also promote negative and destructive behaviour.

The report, which consists of an evidence review and a positioning paper, recommends:

Every school should think through and take action on how they help children develop digital resilience and embed this in their Ofsted-inspected E-safety curriculum

Young people should have engaging, accessible and age-appropriate information about mental health on the sites and apps that they use, so they can help themselves and each other if they are struggling

Industry needs to take on their responsibilities to support young people who may be struggling with the effects of social media addiction, for example, by providing pop-ups signposting to resources and support

Teachers, social workers and professionals working in child and adolescent mental health services should be skilled up to understand young people’s experience of the online world and how to help them to build their digital resilience.

Lucie Russell, director of campaigns and media at YoungMinds and one of the report’s authors, said: “No amount of parental controls or safeguarding features on social media are going to totally prevent young people from experiencing risks online. By promoting digital resilience, we can help young people to ‘bounce back’ quickly from difficult encounters and also learn to avoid them.” 

Laurie Day, director of children, young people and families research at Ecorys, said: “The research aimed to draw together what we know about the digital aspects of children and young people's social and emotional wellbeing, and to consider the risks and opportunities they encounter within their everyday lives.”