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  1. ITV Report

The 'sinister' side of turning to the internet for mental health support

Naomi used social media to share her mental health problems but she soon became aware of the sinister side. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

A young woman has spoken out about the dangers of seeking mental health support online after she found herself viewing graphic and harmful content.

It comes as new government plans could see internet sites be fined or blocked if they fail to tackle "online harms" such as terrorist propaganda and child abuse.

The proposals could see the UK introduce “world first” internet safety laws designed to make the country safer online.

Naomi Lea, 20, experienced both the positive and negative side of social media. Naomi told ITV News she felt unable to talk to friends and family about her mental health problems as a teenager - so turned to the online community instead.

Government plans could see internet sites be fined or blocked if they fail to tackle Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Although it first came as a relief to share her problems, she soon became aware of the more sinister side of social media.

"It was a relief at first just to be able to open up to everybody." Naomi says.

"If I was having a bad day, if I just made a post there was going to be support from that and I could have a conversation with somebody about it"

Naomi started noticing the toxic nature of the community that had initially helped her with her mental health. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

But after several months, Naomi became aware of a more sinister side to some sites, with graphic images of self harm and people posting how many hospital admissions they had.

I was seeing really graphic pictures of self harm and although at that point I'd stopped myself being shown those pictures is not nice for anybody. I started to notice the toxic nature of the community and where people were posting how many admissions they'd had to hospital in their biographies, that I could see was not right, people didn't need to be sharing that information with each other and almost turning it into a competition.

– Noami Lea
New government plans could see internet sites be fined or blocked if they fail to tackle Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

A recent report found that whilst social media can have a range of positive effects, young people are at a high risk of unintentional exposure to graphic content and conversations that can glamorise mental illness.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing found social media was responsible for creating feelings of anxiety and depression, negative body image, cyber bullying, poor sleep and a fear of missing out.

63%
of young people reported social media to be a good source of health information
12%
of children who spend no time on social networking websites have symptoms of mental ill health
27%
of children who are on sites for three hours or more a day have symptoms of mental ill health
Dr William Van Gordon: Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Dr William Van Gordon, an Associate Professor of Contemplative Psychology at the University of Derby, has researched the impact posting on social media has on our brains, as well as our body.

When we start to over use social media actually it then starts to use us… At one level it can begin to interfere with an individual’s normal way of life, with their ability to function well at work, with their relationships, with friends and family. At another level it can start to impair their mental functioning, it can lead to mental health problems and at another level also it can start to confuse their understanding of what is real.

– Dr William Van Gordon, University of Derby

Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have told ITV Wales that they are all working towards providing a safe online environment. Twitter said they'd introduced more than 70 changes to achieve a healthier, safer Twitter that protects the customers it serves.

Meanwhile, Instagram said it does not allow content that encourages or promotes self-harm and seeks to remove harmful content as soon as possible, whilst Facebook said it cares “deeply” about the well-being of their users, and have recently pledged $1 million towards research to better understand the relationship between media technologies and well-being.

Professor Ann John, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says the online environment is a new setting - and unlike when young people are with their family, or in school, there aren’t any adults to model or moderate their behaviour. She believes the solution is to work with young people to deliver positive online messages.

For more support on using social media safely contact Childline.