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Cyber-bullying: Young People’s Mental Health

Volume 639: debated on Monday 16 April 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

I am delighted to be able to lead this debate, even at this comparatively late hour, about the effect of cyber-bullying on young people’s mental health. This important debate arises out of a cross-party inquiry that I set up in Parliament to look into this issue and which published its report earlier this year. It took evidence from over 1,000 young people and was supported by the excellent charities the Children’s Society and YoungMinds, which showed conspicuous dedication, skill and professionalism. Without them, this important work could not have been done. I am very grateful too to colleagues from across the House—Conservative, Labour and Scottish National party colleagues—for their valuable input, as well as to the many witnesses who gave evidence.

Just to provide a bit of context, this all really arises out of my experiences as a constituency MP. I visited schools in Cheltenham, from Bournside to All Saints’, and I spoke to parents and agencies such as Teens in Crisis, which has been commissioned by some schools to provide regular support. I became deeply struck—I fancy that other hon. Members in this House have as well—by the apparent increase in child and adolescent mental health problems. To me at any rate, it does not feel so much like a temporary spike, but more like a lasting surge. I want to say a bit about that before turning to the specific issue of cyber-bullying and what our inquiry found.

As a member of that panel, I want to place on record my thanks to my hon. Friend, who has shown such leadership in this area. I also pay tribute to the young people who gave evidence to the panel. That evidence was deeply moving at times and it was a real credit to them given what they have been through.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He should not be modest about his contribution, which was absolutely fantastic and gratefully received.

To say a little more about the context, recent research by the Prince’s Trust suggested that young people’s wellbeing has declined over the last 12 months and is now at its lowest level since the study was first commissioned in 2009. What is interesting as well is that this is not just a British phenomenon. A recent article by NBC in the United States, citing research from Johns Hopkins University, referred to an acute mental health crisis happening among members of the youngest generation of Americans, with, as the article put it,

“critical implications for the country’s future.”

Similar data is emerging from France and Germany.

Much of the debate in this House has been about a cure—about how we go about fixing the problems after they have emerged. We have debated achieving parity of esteem, funding child and adolescent mental health service beds closer to home, and so on. All that is vitally important, of course, but equal attention must be paid to prevention. Why is the surge happening in the first place? How can we stop it taking root?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I sought his permission beforehand to intervene. With 20% of young people—that is one in five—indicating that their fear of cyber-bullies makes them reluctant to go to school, does he agree that much more must be done to thwart the faceless keyboard warriors who are making the lives of so many young people so very difficult?

I do agree. The hon. Gentleman makes the point very powerfully, and in a moment I will develop why I agree with him so wholeheartedly. I found from speaking to young people that the role of social media has become impossible to ignore. It is not the only issue, of course, but it is a recurrent theme. Although there appeared to be a correlation between the rise of social media and the decline in adolescent mental health, I, colleagues and hon. Members wanted to know if there was causation, too. The report provided powerful evidence to suggest that there is.

By way of context, I should make it clear what the inquiry and this debate are not about. The inquiry was not set up to blame all the world’s ills on the internet or social media. My view is that social media is broadly a force for good. Equally, the internet as a whole fosters social mobility and opportunity. It spreads ideas and enhances freedom across the world. The inquiry did not seek to address all the concerns posed by social media use either. It deliberately left out the issues of fake news, sexting, sleep deprivation and others. All those are important but have been traversed elsewhere, and dealing with them would have made the report unwieldy and unfocused.

Instead, the report and this debate are about one issue only, cyber-bullying, and that is because the evidence from young people, including those we spoke to in the inquiry, suggested it was the single biggest risk factor in mental ill health associated with social media use. We wanted to drill down on that by taking evidence not just from young people but from experts in brain development, and the evidence from more than 1,000 young people was clear: cyber-bullying can be utterly devastating. It is relentless and inescapable. We heard harrowing evidence from young people taken to the very edge of despair. No one is saying of course that bullying does not exist in the analogue world, but it is this added toxic cyber layer, with its extraordinary capacity to amplify torment, that can prove so destructive.

What is so troubling is that the inquiry also found that children are using social media at a very early age —61% had a social media account at the age of 12 or under—and for a long time too: nearly half use it for more than three hours a day and nearly 10% check their social media feeds between midnight and 6 am, with girls twice as likely as boys to be high-intensity users. A troubling proportion—68%—of young people were affected by cyber-bullying, and the medical evidence showed that its impact could last into adulthood, with what one expert called

“lasting consequences on the adolescent brain”.

It seems that this searing experience can be a scarring one too.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his powerful speech tonight. I speak as an MP from Scotland, where this is very topical, the issue of revenge porn online having been highlighted in the Sunday Herald. My colleague Councillor Rhiannon Spear, a young female councillor in Glasgow, had a powerful impact this weekend when she talked about boys taking photographs of her naked and posting them on Twitter. Does he agree that the Government need to look more at revenge porn, given how these images are distributed on social media and the impact it has on young people’s mental health?

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises a really important point. It is only recently of course that revenge porn has become a criminal offence, but I dare say there is more that could be done. It is just one aspect of the hinterland of cyber-bullying but an extremely important one to raise.

My hon. Friend is doing us tremendous service by bringing this topic to the House. To what extent is anonymous bullying a factor? We all know from before the age of the internet the devastating effect of poison pen letters, even on a small scale; here one can have anonymised poison pen electronic letters that are accessible worldwide. Is it people who are known to victims mainly or is it people sheltering behind anonymity?

That is an extremely good point. In truth, it is both, and not only is it the nature of the bullying but the volume. Social media provides the opportunity, whether through sham accounts, spoof accounts or whatever, to multiply the torment, so my right hon. Friend raises such an important issue.

The most striking thing of all perhaps was that 83% of the young people told our inquiry that they thought the social media companies should do more to tackle this scourge. They felt that the onus was on the victim to act—to block or delete—and that reporting all too often felt like shouting into an empty room. There is a perceived lack of consequences for those who engage in bullying behaviour online in a way that is different from real life. There is some evidence from some platforms of temporary sanctions for cyber-bullies to nudge them back to good behaviour, but they remain the exception.

In fairness, the message is starting to get through. In his new year 2018 message, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, vowed to “fix Facebook”. One of the priorities he highlighted was “protecting our community from abuse and hate”, and he admitted that enforcement of house policies was failing. I am afraid we concluded that he was right. It is particularly impactful and devastating when the people who are being affected are under the age of 18. They are just children.

While we were grateful for the constructive engagement of social media companies—and it is true to say that the larger companies tended to take the issue more seriously—the unavoidable overall impression was that announcements and measures were largely tokenistic: slow and inadequate. Because there was so little transparency about the number of reports and the nature of the response, it was, in effect, impossible to determine whether the resources allocated bore any relation to the scale of the problem. The companies essentially continue to mark their own homework. As one witness put it, companies faced with growing alarm about the implications for young people’s mental health are “walking backwards slowly”. That is not acceptable, because our evidence showed that those failures have an impact on children and young people, and that the effect is particularly profound, concerning and long-lasting.

It is important to emphasise that tackling cyber-bullying must be a joint endeavour. Parents, guardians and teachers all have a role to play, but it is equally true that when it comes to minors, social media companies bear responsibility as well. It is simply not enough to sign children up and then just let them get on with it. It is important for the companies to be age-appropriate, and to do more to identify under-13s and, when appropriate, gain explicit consent from parents or guardians. They should provide timely, effective and consistent responses to online bullying, and they must become more accountable. What do I mean by that? I mean that they must publish data about their responses to reports of online bullying. Only then—if we know the number of reports, and the nature and timeliness of the responses—will any sensible assessment of the efficacy of those responses be possible.

As for the Government, I think that they ought to do what they reasonably can to improve our understanding of the role of social media in adolescent mental health. We are very much in the scientific foothills of our understanding of these issues, and the firmest possible evidence base will help to tailor the best solutions. I recognise, however, that the Government have gone a long way with the digital charter to increase the tempo, and I urge them to continue that important work.

My final comments are thanks. I thank the young people—more than 1,000 of them—who responded to the inquiry and gave evidence, and without whom the report would have had no currency. It was their evidence that gave its conclusions their heft, and it was their experience that left such a marked impression on all who took part in the inquiry.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing this timely debate on the important issue of the effects of cyber-bullying on young people’s mental health. He articulated extremely well the challenges that we need to tackle, and I agreed with much of what he had to say about them.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the report that was published recently. As he said, 1,000 young people participated in the inquiry and produced a useful body of evidence from which to draw conclusions. I also thank the Children’s Society and YoungMinds for their role in the inquiry. I met representatives of YoungMinds today, and I have regular dialogues with them on the broader issues relating to the mental health of children and young people. They are very important partners for us in this context.

As my hon. Friend recognised, a number of Departments have an interest in this matter. I have often said that silo culture is the enemy of good policy making, and I am pleased to say that the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are all approaching the issue from their own unique perspectives, and attacking it from different angles. We are all committed to tackling the scourge of cyber-bullying, although, as my hon. Friend pointed out, it is an emerging issue that requires careful consideration of the evidence and joint working to enable us to start stemming the flow. He was right to say that we need to draw conclusions in a timely way to ensure that we have the appropriate tactics for prevention.

It is important to recognise that the term “cyber-bullying” is often misleading. We are talking about two separate elements. Bullying is a kind of behaviour that can take many forms, and social and other cyber-media are tools for that bullying. As my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) have said, this has become a particularly acute problem to tackle as those tools can be anonymous. That dehumanises both the bully and the victim, and if we do not get it under control more effectively it will become the epidemic my hon. Friend has warned of.

Turning to what the Government are doing, the Department of Health and Social Care is focusing on improving services for children and young people’s mental health. We know that children and young people’s mental health services need to improve, and we have a programme of work under way, supported by more than £1.4 billion of additional funding, to achieve just that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham will know, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education recently published a joint Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health, which was supported by a further £300 million.

Through that Green Paper, we acknowledged the potential impact of social media and the internet on children and young people’s mental health, but, most significantly, we identified that effective mental health care for young people does not have to take place in a clinical setting. That reinforces the importance of getting the right support in schools, which underlines my hon. Friend’s priority of preventive measures. That is why we are placing much more support in and around schools, where young people spend so much of their time.

We are also taking action to use the digital world to our advantage, using positive digital interventions for mental health. For example, NHS Digital is producing an apps library that brings together a number of digital tools to help improve health, including mental health and wellbeing, for all ages. Over time, many more tools will be added to the library to support more health needs and drive up quality.

Turning to the online world, where I think my hon. Friend is more interested in holding other agencies to account, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport last year published our internet safety strategy Green Paper. A response to the consultation process will be published imminently, and I am sure my hon. Friend will be first in the queue to read its conclusions. It will include a number of preventive initiatives to tackle cyber-bullying so that all users of all ages feel confident in being online. For example, during the consultation we proposed a voluntary social media code of practice. The intention is for the code to provide guidance to platforms about how they should tackle abusive behaviour and content and support all users, because adults can be bullied just as much as children on social media platforms.

I personally think the providers can do a great deal more. My hon. Friend referred specifically to Facebook. While Mark Zuckerberg’s comments to which he referred are welcome, I think a lot more can be done. Given that reporting to social media companies is low among those who recognise that they have been cyber-bullied, and that children have little confidence in social media companies to resolve cyber-bullying, the internet safety strategy Green Paper also involved consultation on annual online safety transparency reporting by companies. That reporting is intended to both develop better understanding of the extent of bullying behaviours and encourage those who are being bullied to make referrals to those companies. Social media companies must do more to raise awareness and improve the clarity of their reporting mechanisms in relation to cyber-bullying, and we hope that improving transparency reporting will help improve the likelihood of young people reporting these issues in the future.

As I have said, however, this is not an online-only issue, and the Department for Education is taking action to prevent bullying in general as well as cyber-bullying. All schools are legally required to have a behaviour policy with measures to prevent all forms of bullying. The Government have already put in place a number of powers and a range of support to enable schools to prevent and tackle cyber-bullying. For example, headteachers have the power to regulate pupils’ conduct when they are not on school premises. Where bullying outside school is reported to teachers, it must be investigated and acted on. We have also ensured that schools have the power to ban, limit the use of, or search mobile phones in school, and the Government Equalities Office funded the UK Safer Internet Centre to develop cyber-bullying guidance for schools and an online safety toolkit to help schools deliver sessions about cyber-bullying, peer pressure and sexting. I can advise the House that the Department for Education is also providing £1.75 million of funding over two years to support schools in tackling bullying, with cyber-bullying being an integral element of that.

Returning to the role of social media companies, we really believe that they have a central role to play. That is why we set up a joint working group with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to discuss how to make progress in specific areas, particularly that of age verification. My hon. Friend said that many young people are spending a great deal of time online—more than was good for their health—and we want to explore time limits. On the question of age verification, I am clear that the social media companies could do a lot more to protect young people. The reality is that if they can collaborate on developing apps that allow people to harvest data, they can use the intelligence on their platforms to identify young people and communicate with them. We recognise that some companies have existing work in place, and we congratulate them on that, but a lot more can be done. There are significant challenges to overcome, and there remains a need for further action to be taken. We are actively encouraging companies to work with us and to make tangible progress in this area.

We have heard what the Government are doing to tackle these problems as they arise, but we also need to recognise that, without further research, our efforts will not reach the level that we need and that young people deserve. We have heard the statistics already this evening. Social media and the internet are an ever-growing part of children’s and young people’s lives. As my hon. Friend has said, some individuals are spending an inordinate amount of time online. More than half of 12-year-olds have a social media profile, and those are the people who really need our protection. However, although evidence has shown links between increases in social media use and poorer mental health, it is not clear whether that increased use causes poorer mental health, or whether poorer mental health drives an increase in use of social media. We need to develop more evidence on that.

We should also recognise that there are positive impacts of social media use that can really improve the lives of children and young people suffering with mental health issues. It can build a community that they can access to increase their self-esteem and get social support. In practice, that could mean children collaborating on projects through better online communities—for example, a homework WhatsApp group for people in the same class or a Twitter hashtag for those studying for school or university exams. So let us keep a balance here: there are some positives. Young people also take advantage of being able to access supportive online networks of people with similar health conditions, which could be more difficult in the offline world.

I should also like to welcome the Science and Technology Committee’s recently launched inquiry into the effects of social media on young people’s health. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be watching that with interest too. I look forward to contributing to the inquiry and to hearing its outcomes, which will add to our evidence in this area. I can also advise the House that, in order to better understand the relationship between social media and the mental health of children and young people, the chief medical officer is leading a systematic review to examine all relevant international research in the area. For the review, existing literature will be searched extensively, which will enable Professor Davies to build a map of research activity, identify the areas for in-depth review and subsequently allow her to examine the areas in detail. This will allow her to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of the evidence base, as well as considering the positive and negative impacts of social media.

In conclusion, across Government, we are as clear as my hon. Friend is about the need to take action to tackle and prevent the increase in cyber-bullying, as well as the need to improve the support available to those suffering as a result of it. We are incorporating such action within related work streams across the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It is clear that a cultural shift is needed to ensure that future generations do not accept cyber-bullying as the norm, and that they know when and how to access support and help. We need to make it clear what online behaviour is acceptable and what is not. We have made it clear as a Government that we are prepared to work with social media and technology companies in this area, and, like my hon. Friend, we expect them to take significant further steps. However, the buck stops with them. The ball is in their court and they need to do much more. We will continue to maintain the dialogue on that basis. I thank my hon. Friend again for raising this important issue. I have no doubt that we will come back to the subject again.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. With the blessing of the Government Whip here present, may I ask whether any steps have been taken to reinstate the curtain-and-commode system that used to envelop the Chair, so that on occasions like today, when you have sat there continuously from when the House first met until the House adjourns this evening, you might be able to do so in a little more comfort?

Well, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order, but I am not aware that any such steps are planned. In so far as my personal comfort is a matter of interest or concern to the right hon. Gentleman, which is very touching, and might conceivably be to other colleagues, I can assure him and them that I have not felt other than comfortable, privileged and exhilarated to have been in the Chair for the past nine and a quarter hours.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.