Pupil screen-use problems may be down to mental health

Pupils with with pre-existing problems may seek out disturbing issues, Chief Medical Officer tells MPs

Adi Bloom

screen use

'Screen-use' problems may be driven by children with pre-existing mental-health conditions using devices to access disturbing content, the chief medical officer has said.

Professor Dame Sally Davies said she thought this was a more likely explanation than access to smart phones and tablets themselves causing mental health problems.

Speaking to MPs this morning, Professor Dame Sally Davies said that it was a “chicken and egg” conundrum.

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“The problem we have is: does screen time lead to mental-health problems?” she said. “Or do people with mental-health problems get caught by their screens and use them to hunt down things?

“So it’s chicken and egg, and it’s a very difficult one to sort out.”

Questioned by the Commons science and technology select committee on her own view of this conundrum, she added: “I suspect it’s that people who have a tendency to mild to moderate mental-health problems and then use their screens in that way. 

“But that’s just from the reading I’ve done, and watching lots of young people and how they use it.”

Earlier this year, the UK’s four chief medical officers, including Dame Sally, produced guidance to help ensure that children used screens and electronic devices safely.

This followed concerns over incidents such as the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell, in 2017. When Molly’s family looked at her Instagram account, they found material about depression and suicide. Her father has said that he believes that Instagram is partly responsible for her death.

Speaking to MPs today, Dame Sally said that social-media companies could do more to assist understanding of pupils’ screen use. 

“They’re sitting on a lot of data about screen use, and what things different ages look for,” she said. “If, in signing up to these platforms, the children and young people have given their ages – which some of them will not have given the correct age – that will give us very useful data.”

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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