As the number of children and young people who self-harm continues to climb at an alarming rate, schools are increasingly aware of the problem and the need for staff to support pupils. Understanding the increasing role that social media plays makes the issue harder to unpick.
To coincide with Self-harm Awareness Day at the beginning of March, a consortium of UK youth charities surveyed 2,000 11 to 21-year-olds, finding that a large number have been exposed to images online of people self-harming. A significant proportion said that these images make them “feel like hurting themselves”. This shows the complex relationship between young people, social media and self-harming behaviour. Rather than being a cry for attention or an attempt at suicide, self-harm is usually a way for young people to release overwhelming emotions. It may also be copying behaviour they see in the media or online.
What is needed is a way of considering this issue that is new and balanced. iRights, a coalition of organisations representing every element of civil society, hosted by the National Children’s Bureau, is all about building a better internet for young people.
iRights is calling for internet and digital technologies to be designed and delivered with the needs of the young at the forefront so that young people can access the digital world creatively, knowledgeably and fearlessly. In the analogue world, children have clear rights: 25 years ago we recognised the human rights of all children and young people by adopting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The iRights principles contextualise these rights for the digital world. Clear and unambiguous, the five iRights cover: the right to remove; the right to know; the right to safety and support; the right to make informed and conscious choices; and the right to digital literacy.
Personal experimentation is an essential part of childhood development, yet the internet never forgets and never corrects. Young people routinely share information online without understanding what the current and future consequences may be. They should only be asked to hand over personal data when they have the capacity to understand they are doing so and what their decision means.
The UN Convention makes clear that, due to their physical and mental immaturity, children require special safeguards, care and appropriate legal protection. However, when more than one in four secondary children using social networking sites have reported being upset in the last year, and more than one in 10 of those said they felt upset on a daily basis, it is obvious that our current strategies are not working.
All of a young person’s interactions – educational, social, entertainment and news – coexist on the same device. This keeps their attention in constant play. As a result we are seeing children at a developmentally sensitive stage missing sleep and skipping food because of internet use. It must be right that the commercial considerations used in designing software should be balanced against the needs and requirements of young people to engage and disengage during a developmentally sensitive period of their lives.
While it is true that going online can leave children open to the threat of violence and abuse, the internet can also empower young people to exercise their rights, giving them opportunities to learn and explore the world around them. By agreeing a set of rights-based principles – agreed, adopted and lived across sectors, political parties, governments and institutions – for promoting children’s rights in the digital age we can ensure children have the protection they need to keep them safe from harm online.
The five iRightsTo join the coalition and for more details on the five iRights, visit http://irights.uk/the_5_irights/
Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk