Mental health problems among the young have risen six-fold since the rise of social media platforms

Laura Donnelly
The number of children and young people reporting “a long-standing mental health condition” has soared among a generation brought up with the internet - AFP

Mental health problems among the young have risen six-fold since the advent of social media, a major study shows.

The research by University College London, Imperial College London, University of Exeter and the Nuffield Trust tracked trends from 1995 to 2014.

They found that the number of children and young people reporting “a long-standing mental health condition” has soared among a generation brought up with the internet.

The study is the first major research in the field for more than a decade.

It follows warnings by the head of the NHS, about an epidemic of mental ill-health fuelled by social media.

Simon Stevens has backed a Daily Telegraph campaign for a “duty of care”, with more robust regulation of sites like Facebook and Instagram.

The new research, published in journal Psychological Medicine, found that in 1995, just 0.8% of four to 24-year-olds in England said they had a long-standing mental health condition.

This rose to 4.8%, the equivalent of almost one in 20 young people, by 2014.

The nature of the question - only detecting long-term problems - means it is likely to reflect a small proportion of the total number suffering any kind of mental crisis.

Lead researcher Dr Dougal Hargreaves, of Imperial College London and the Nuffield Trust, said: “There are likely to be many reasons behind this striking rise in self-reported mental health conditions. While some of it could be explained by better awareness and a reduction in stigma around mental health, other things such as social media and cyberbullying may well have contributed to the rise in mental health problems among young people.

"We know that young people say social media has a negative impact on their self-esteem, with almost half of young girls highlighting this in a recent survey.”

A study published on Tuesday shows a significant rise in self-harm among teenagers and young people, with attempted overdoses among those as young as 10.

Later this year, the Office for National Statistics will publish national data, examining prevalance of all mental health problems among children and young people - the first since the advent of social media.

Dr Hargreaves said rising levels of distress were fuelling a growing crisis in child and adolescent mental health services.

"Our study suggests that this need is likely to continue to grow in future.

"Without more radical action to improve access to and funding for CAMHS, as well as a wider strategy to promote positive mental health and wellbeing, we may be letting down some of the most vulnerable in society."

He said children and young people may also be more willing than they used to be to “open up” about their mental health.

Data from more than 140,000 participants aged four to 24 years old, from 36 national surveys, was analysed as part of the study.

Those aged 16 to 24 were almost 10 times as likely to report a long-term mental health condition in 2014 than in 1995, with the proportion rising from 0.6 per cent  to 5.9 per cent, the study found.

Dr Max Davie, officer for health promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: "As clinicians working alongside mental health services, we have known for some time that there is huge demand placed upon them.

"With the publication of this study, there is now further evidence of this, it must act as a catalyst for Government to take swift action."

He added: "As this study highlights, more children are talking about mental health, showing the stigma is starting to shift, but without the services to support growing patient numbers it brings, children are left with nowhere to turn."