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‘The Perfect Generation’: Is the internet undermining young people’s mental health?

Overall, young people do not see the internet and technology as bad for their mental health, but adolescents have diverse views about this subject. This was reflected in our surveys and in our youth focus groups – while some teens had very positive things to say about the online world, others focused on the pressures and potential downsides. Their opinions are nuanced and thoughtful – almost all the young people we spoke to, in focus groups and through our survey, highlighted multiple ways that the internet can be good and bad for their emotional wellbeing.

A growing body of evidence suggests that online and offline resilience and vulnerability are linked. The young people we spoke to strongly agreed that the online world affects people differently depending on factors like their mood and their age – what one person might be able to brush off without much worry, others might find deeply disturbing. Some of the young people we interviewed are not in mainstream education for medical reasons. Their perceptions of the internet and social media were much more negative than their peers in mainstream schools, in line with the idea that young people with one or more offline vulnerabilities are more likely to experience risk online.

The state of mental health in schools is indeed worrying, with the majority of schools respondents saying they deal with pupil mental health issues more frequently than once per month. A large majority also believe pupil mental health problems are getting more frequent and more severe, and yet 84% of schools do not have the resources to deal with these issues adequately.

There is an interesting discrepancy between what schools and young people think about the internet and about its effects on mental health. Teachers and other members of school staff are more negative about the internet – 44% of schools think it is bad for young people’s mental health, compared to just 28% of young people. They also, in both our survey and our interviews, seemed to overestimate young people’s propensity to seek help and information online. The young people we spoke to prefer to get support from their friends and families, but are sometimes prevented from doing so by shame or fear – suggesting we have more work to do on reducing mental health stigma.