In the news… Self-harm fears over parental surveillance of children’s ‘digital life’

Parents who are worried about their children being bullied or self-harming should not operate “surveillance” on their use of mobile phones and the internet, according to new guidance from psychiatrists.

The advice from the Royal College of Psychiatrists on self-harm says parents and health professionals need to take account of an “explosion in digital communication” – especially social media platforms such as Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter.

Health workers are urged to undertake “an assessment of a young person’s digital life” to find out how and when they use social media, phones and the internet, when there are concerns about a child’s mental health and a risk of self-harm.

But the guidance says that parents should not snoop on their children’s use of mobile phone or the internet, as this could make things worse, by leaving children feeling they are not trusted.

It also suggests that parents should be positive about the benefits of the online world – or risk young people clamming up and not telling them when they encounter bullying or disturbing images.

Latest figures show more than 22,000 incidents a year in which children and teenagers were treated in hospital for self-harming, with a 30 per cent rise in cases among 10 to 14 year olds in one year. Experts warned that cyberbullying on social networking websites is creating “toxic childhoods” for many children and young people, leaving some feeling they have no escape from pressures on them.

The new guidance for health professionals updates recommendations from 1998, about how to help those at risk of self-harm.

The advice about digital technology is the most significant change in the recommendations.

The report says: “Digital technology, particularly social media platforms such as Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, is now a central part of young people’s lives, for information, entertainment and communication.”

The advice states: “It is important for parents to be interested and engaged in their children’s digital lives as early as possible.

“Recognising the benefits of the online world will often help a young person feel more comfortable when talking about difficult online experiences such as bullying or feeling uncomfortable about something they have seen or have been involved with.

“Given the rapidly evolving nature of the online and digital world, trust and communication are likely to be more helpful to the young person than attempts at surveillance, especially given young people’s use of mobile devices.”

Dr Andrew Hill-Smith, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and a member of the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Royal College of Psychiatrists, said all parents should talk to their children about their use of digital media, but should try to avoid snooping.

He said: “When kids are small you can see what they are doing to, but as they get older social media becomes much less visible and much more private. Obviously there has been an explosion in the use of this, and it’s really important that parents try to engage with it and understand as much as they can.”

Snooping on children behind their back was likely to prove counter-productive, he said.

“If you get into surveillance mode, you are creating more tensions and stresses,” he said. “It is better to try and have the conversations and untangle what is going on than to get into autocratic mode,” he said.

Psychiatrists also urged parents to keep an eye on the video games being played by children, with young children often playing violent games which were aimed at much older ages.

Studies suggest that one in 12 teenagers has self-harmed.

Last year, official NHS guidance warned that thousands of children as young as five were suffering from depression, with 8,000 cases among the under 10s.

“Suicide remains the second most common cause of death among young people. Self-harm is an important signal of distress so it needs sensitive responses with careful handling,” Dr Hill-Smith said.


Date: 7th October 2014

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