It would be obvious to point to a generational divide when looking at how we use the internet. We know that young people’s lives are fluid: online or offline, the picture is blurred as to become almost irrelevant. It is just the means by which they get information, present themselves or communicate. It’s not important.
It is the generations before them who are more aware of it and who perhaps fear it.
Is this dichotomy getting in the way of mental health? Is fear from older decision-makers and policy-makers preventing young people from being able to access support in the same fluid way that they might use social media?
I would argue that we should be fearless enough to meet them where they are. Why should they be expected to do what we might have done? Perhaps told a trusted friend, perhaps told their parents who would have made a GP appointment and got a pill or a face-to-face session with a therapist.
Perhaps more likely, buried our feelings so deep no-one ever knew.
Things are culturally radically different today. Most young people expect immediate accessibility and availability. Why not mental health support? Why shouldn’t professional therapists meet them in an online space which takes its lead from social media, but which is, importantly, anonymous and safe.
This anonymity and safety gives young people incredible freedom. They can express themselves knowing that they can be who they want to be without judgement and without the backlash associated with saying the wrong thing on Twitter or Snapchat.
Our therapists find young people are incredibly open; academic research points to a ‘disinhibition’ online therapy can bring about which leads to disclosure of more personal issues than would typically surface face-to-face.
The remarkable thing is that young people do not have to have online counselling. No-one is forcing their hand. They are choosing this route. They want help, they want to use their phones to access it and they want to feel safe getting it.
This is something extremely difficult to achieve in any other way, through CAMHS, through their teachers, GPs or even parents.
So while there is an understandable drive to limit the impact of social media, based on concern over children and young people’s vulnerabilities online, there is also a compelling argument to broaden it out further.
Offering young people a safe space to get professional help and moderated peer-to-peer support means early intervention and prevention become much more than an aspiration in a green paper, but become distinctly possible.
It’s time we developed services for young people, rather than letting our fear deny them what we know they want.
Research and Evaluation Director, XenZone