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EXCL Health Secretary Matt Hancock links social media to rise in self-harm among teenage girls

4 min read

Social media has contributed to the steep rise in self-harm among teenage girls, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock has claimed.

NHS figures released earlier this year revealed that the number of girls under the age of 18 being treated in hospital after self-harming had nearly doubled to 13,463 last year compared to 7,327 in 1997.

Over the same period, the equivalent figure for boys was 2,332 in 2017 compared to 2,236 in 1997.

In an interview with The House magazine, Mr Hancock said social media “has got a part to play” in the rise of mental health problems for children and young people and noted the increase in self-harm with the emergence of the sites.

The Health Secretary also attacked social media companies for doing “absolutely nothing” to enforce minimum age rules – and suggested imposing them should be a mandatory requirement.

And he called on the NHS to shift from focusing on the “nuts and bolts” of people’s bodies to supporting people’s physical and mental health to keep up with developments in the world of work.

When asked by The House what was behind the rise in mental health problems for children and young people, he said: “It’s a combination of prevalence and people being more willing to talk about it. I definitely think social media has got a part to play.

“If you look at the figures, there’s an increase in self-harm amongst teenage girls but not amongst teenage boys. And that implies that something happened in the last decade to increase the pressure on teenage girls.

“Now, thankfully that hasn’t yet been reflected in a material change in suicide rates, which is the ultimate failure of somebody’s mental health – suicide rates are currently at a seven-year low.

“But that implies that there is a problem in terms of the pressures being put on teenage girls and the consequences for their mental health.”

Mr Hancock said there “absolutely” should be a minimum and enforced legal age requirement to use social media sites.

When asked what the age limits should be, he replied: “Well, the terms and conditions of the main social media sites are that you shouldn’t use it under the age of 13, but the companies do absolutely nothing to enforce against that. And they should, I think that should be a requirement.

“You shouldn’t be on WhatsApp, according to their own terms and conditions, before you’re 16. And yet, the pressures that people feel under when they’re on a WhatsApp group to respond, to wake up in the middle of the night to get back to messages – this is teenagers or young kids who aren’t even teenagers yet.

“So, if the company say that you shouldn’t be on it till 16, they should do something about that and they should empower parents to allow it to happen."

Earlier this month, Mr Hancock asked the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, to draw up guidelines on social media use by children.


Mr Hancock said that a general increase in reported mental health problems was a combination of people being more willing to talk about their experiences and an increased “prevalence” of illness due to “more pressures”.

“Society as a whole – and work in particular – has moved from relying on your brawn and physical capability a generation or two ago, to relying on your straight-line cognitive thinking maybe a few years ago, to increasingly relying on your emotional intelligence,” he said.

“The health system needs to make the same journey from focussing on the nuts and bolts of people’s bodies to concentrating increasingly on ensuring the whole person’s physical and mental health is supported.”

He added: “The best doctors have always understood all of that. The training increasingly includes the human and emotional side. For instance, doctors are actively trained now on how to impart difficult messages to patients. But the overall system needs to clearly move in that direction.”

Elsewhere in his interview, Mr Hancock called for a greater focus on community care to help improve cancer survival rates and urged a “culture change” in the NHS to improve its treatment of female patients.

He also called for Tory MPs within his party to unite behind Theresa May to avoid Jeremy Corbyn entering Downing Street, which he claimed would be the “biggest catastrophe” that could befall UK politics.

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