Teenagers less likely to use alcohol and drugs, but self-harm and eating disorders are on the rise

Exclusive: How the internet generation take risks in other ways

Chris Green
Thursday 20 August 2015 19:11 BST
Access to the internet both solves and creates problems for the young
Access to the internet both solves and creates problems for the young (Rex)

Today's teenagers are less likely to get pregnant at a young age and are turning away from drink, drugs and cigarettes – but are increasingly engaging in self-harm, suffering from eating disorders and not getting enough sleep, according to a government paper.

The findings, published by a group of Britain’s most senior civil servants, suggest that the pervasion of the internet and social media, coupled with better parental monitoring and supervision, has prompted major changes in the behaviour of the country’s youth.

At a meeting chaired by Sir Mark Walport, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, experts told the group that “digital immersion” had resulted in a “rapid and dramatic societal shift” which was already having a profound impact on young people.

While some said that the popularity of social media and computer games had left children with “less time and opportunity to participate in traditional risk behaviours” such as underage drinking, others pointed out that the anonymity of the internet had made obtaining “legal highs” and “designer drugs” much easier for them.

Although it acknowledged that there was still “considerable uncertainty” about the impact of the digital world on teenagers, the paper said there had been a clear rise in cyber-bullying and that today’s children were now frequently exposed to “hate content, self-harm and pro-anorexia” websites.

Perhaps surprisingly, the group said “sexting” – the sending and receiving of sexually explicit text messages – was already declining among young people, as was the underage use of social media. But some of the experts raised concerns that the prevalence of online pornography could be having “significant psychological impacts” on children.

For many, the internet provided a valuable source of information and support and could help them answer questions about mental or sexual health, the paper said. But others struggled to control the time they spent online.

“For some children and young people, internet usage approaches levels where it could be classified as an addiction,” the paper said.

The discussion came in the wake of research commissioned by the Government’s “horizon scanning” group, which analyses future opportunities and threats and assesses the impact they might have on policies. Its work is overseen by Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary.

The document said there was good evidence to suggest a “slow and steady decline” in drinking, drug use, smoking, crime, suicide and teenage pregnancy among the country’s young people – but concluded there was “no space for complacency” as different risks were continually emerging and evolving.

A rise in self-harm, especially among teenage girls, was identified as an “area of concern” by the experts, who pointed to recent research suggesting that a third of 15-year-old girls had reported harming themselves on purpose. “Figures for eating disorders and body image issues suggest that these are also significant problems, and are likely to be associated with poor mental health,” the paper added.

Many adolescents also suffered from a “chronic lack of sleep”, while a decline in exercise among both boys and girls was highlighted as a problem with “long-term health implications”. The proportion of boys meeting guidelines for physical activity had fallen from 28 per cent in 2008 to 21 per cent in 2012, the paper said.

However, the paper also stressed that the current generation of young people were not only displaying less risky behaviour than their predecessors, but were also doing positive things for society “that often go unrecognised in public debate”. About 80 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds volunteered in the past year – more than any other age group, it said.

Suzie Hayman, a trustee and spokeswoman for the parenting charity Family Lives, said today’s teenagers could be described as “the sensible generation” when it came to drink, drugs and alcohol. Part of the explanation for the decline in these activities, she said, was that the internet provided a constant source of entertainment.

“Getting drunk and smoking often happens when you are hanging around on street corners with nothing to do. Nowadays you can just reach for a tablet or a mobile phone. You’re never bored, you’re constantly on social media, looking at stuff, discovering stuff – often in safe environments,” she said.

However, she added that self-harm, bullying and eating disorders were “a real worry” and that parents needed to make sure their children felt loved. “We still do seem to have a problem with young people not feeling happy, not feeling supported – communication between parents and children in this country is not as good as it is in others. It seems to be the British style,” she said.

Lucie Russell, the director of media and campaigns at the children’s mental health charity YoungMinds, said the new teenage behaviour highlighted by the paper was “very worrying” and that school and exam-related stress, family breakdown and the internet all played their part.

“Young people are online 24/7. It never lets up,” she said. “There’s a constant need for reassurance. They live their lives in a public domain and feel pressurised to present themselves as the perfect person, with the perfect body.”

The Government has set aside £1.25bn to improve young people’s mental health services over the next five years. Alistair Burt, the community and social care minister, has spoken of the need to “treat a broken mind with the same urgency as a broken leg”.

Earlier this month, NHS England distributed £30m of funding to improve eating disorder services, with the aim of having 95 per cent of patients seen within four weeks by 2020. The Department for Education is also promoting the use of counselling in schools and better teaching about mental health.

Beverley Jullien, the chief executive of the Mothers' Union charity, which offers advice to parents, said children could be taught to be “resilient” to the dangers of the online world without being “wrapped in cotton wool” – but that the pace of change was so rapid thatparents should ensure they educated themselves, as well.

Ms Hayman also pointed out that for teenagers, engaging in risky or rebellious behaviour was perfectly normal and did not necessarily suggest a problem in their personal lives. “It’s what being an adolescent is all about. This is the time in their lives when they’re trying to decide who they are – in making that stand, they often go through rites of passage which involve risky things,” she said. “We need to recognise that. You’ll never eliminate young people taking risks.”

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