• Social media communities and online resources can help young people find social connection and peer support.
  • While trying to understand what online support is available, parents should foster a trusting relationship with their kids and directly and openly engage about mental health as well as other aspects of health and wellbeing, including any warning signs of suicide or self-harm.
  • With more time spent online during the COVID-19 pandemic and people generally more anxious, parents and health professionals are urged to work together with young people to understand how this space can support youth mental health.

For parents already concerned about their children’s social media activity, the “infodemic” of misinformation and even greater dependence on phones during the COVID-19 pandemic will only heighten anxieties. Deepening these challenges is a lack of collective experience that could help parents decide what guidelines to adopt to protect their offspring’s health online.

As members of the World Economic Forum’s 22 person-strong Global Future Council on Technology for Mental Health, we’ve been focused on young people (ages 5-25) and suicide – how to detect the risks and what responses might be possible, especially if aided by technology. COVID-19 brings a particular opportunity and the need to shift the model for tech and mental health away from one of fear, toward one of possibility.

There is widespread anxiety that the rapid uptake of new technologies has exacerbated the risk of self-harm and suicide, particularly among young people. By contrast, many of us who work in mental health are intrigued by the potential positive influences of social media and the extent to which, if well-managed, they can far outweigh the negative. Young people, including many marginalized in their own local settings (e.g. same-sex attracted, socially anxious, autistic or with other communication difficulties), can find a community online in a way not possible for their parents’ generation. The digital environment is where young people go for social connection, trusted information, help from peers and self-help, and more high-quality services could be made available to those who have never received help.

Some young people have a higher than average risk of mental health problems – the result of a disability or chronic ill-health of any kind, family disruption, being a member of a minority group or being isolated by language or location. Everyone’s risk of mental health problems has increased during COVID-19. For many of us, especially young people, the online world can be a positive link to others in a similar situation or predicament.

In our experience as researchers, we have seen how interventions that assist parents – without suggesting they are to blame – can be effective in supporting the resilience of their kids. We have seen how involving not only young people but also parents in planning research about many types of mental health interventions can greatly help the value of research outcomes.

Parents, including those in minority groups, often feel isolated and can feel abandoned by services when they seek advice or help for their young son or daughter. By contrast, they may find information about family life and links with peer groups online that lessen feelings of guilt and shame and provide practical advice. Websites such as Inspire and ReachOut Australia provide help for young people that can also be useful for parents, while advice specifically for parents is available too.

The pandemic has led to even more resources for parents on how to manage their and their children’s mental health and well-being during this unprecedented time, including from the WHO and UNICEF.

Dealing with suicide risk

Any parent who thinks that their teen is in immediate danger of suicide, however, should call a local emergency number or suicide hotline. It's not easy for parents to come to accept that their teenager or young adult is at risk of being suicidal. Warning signs might include:

  • Talking or writing about suicide;
  • Withdrawing from social contact;
  • Wanting to drop out of school or education;
  • Having severe mood swings;
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs;
  • Feeling trapped or hopeless about a situation;
  • Changes to their normal routine, including eating or sleeping patterns;
  • Doing risky or self-destructive things;
  • Giving his or her stuff away for no reason;
  • Developing personality changes or being severely anxious or agitated when experiencing some of the warning signs listed above.

The primary advice we have for parents is to foster a trusting relationship with your kids, giving them the courage to come to you early if they are thinking of self-harm or suicide. There is a false notion that asking people directly might nudge them to inflict self-harm. Research from the Norwegian National Centre of Suicide Prevention shows that this is not the case. On the contrary, young people respond favourably towards being open about their darkest thoughts of possible self-harm or suicide. This openness is most typically expressed first to a family member or to a trusted friend. Engaging with an individual at an SOS helpline, or health personnel may well be the next productive step.

Effect of coronavirus crisis on young people's mental health in the UK in 2020
Effect of coronavirus crisis on young people's mental health in the UK in 2020
Image: Statista

Pay attention to your teen. Ask your teen to talk about his or her feelings, listen and don't dismiss it. Reassure your teen of your love. Remind them that you´re willing to help no matter what and that he/she is deeply loved. Be honest about the uncertainty surrounding this strange and difficult time we are living through and its tendency to show itself as anxiety, but assure your teen that virtual connection to others can help get them through it.

You can be willing to go online with your child or teenager to explore the possible solutions and range of social connections that are possible. An openness to sharing and learning from the experience of other parents and teenagers who have been through tough times may well assist. Seek the best clinical or medical help available together.

Much teen suicide is preventable. Teens want you to ask how they are doing. Don´t be afraid to ask and get some help, and to stay connected with young people through these very tough times.

Support beyond COVID-19

What more can be done to boost support for parents who are concerned about mental ill health or the risks of suicidal behaviour in young people and how can we make this concern and support more ‘normal’ in the time of the pandemic and in its aftermath?

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

As parents and others talk more with each other face-to-face and online, they will normalize this process. As health and mental health professionals learn more about the digital world, and the pandemic reshapes how we interact within it, they are in a better position to advise young people and their parents about the help available and ways to mitigate harm.

Health professionals need to talk more about the value of improving your mental health – just as we hear from them and community advocates about the value of physical fitness. They need to convince their colleagues and communities that we can all take steps to improve our emotional and cognitive capacities, and that health professionals can provide effective help in times of mental distress. They need to work with policy-makers to ensure that mental health support – at all levels of care – is baked into assistance packages and changes in policy and systemic incentives as a result of COVID-19.