Wellbeing and Mental Health

World Mental Health Day: How to safeguard children's mental wellbeing in the digital era

This year's World Mental Health Day theme is "Mental health is a universal human right"

This year's World Mental Health Day theme is "Mental health is a universal human right" Image: Unsplash/Ralston Smith

Ruma Bhargava
Lead, Mental Health, World Economic Forum
David Finkelhor
Professor, Department of Sociology, University of New Hampshire
Sabine Rakotomalala
Technical Officer, Violence Prevention Unit, World Health Organization
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  • While the power of technology offers many opportunities in the digital age, it also poses challenges – particularly for the mental health of young people.
  • With more than 5 billion people using the internet, it is vital to have a collective understanding on potential online risks to children and adolescents.
  • On World Mental Health Day, all stakeholders must work together to empower children to navigate the digital world, while prioritizing mental wellbeing.

In today's rapidly advancing digital age, the power of technology offers incredible opportunities while simultaneously presenting unprecedented challenges, particularly for the mental health of our children and adolescents.

With more than 5 billion people – nearly 60% of the world’s population – using the internet, cultivating a collective understanding of potential online risks affecting young minds is vital.

Parents, advocates, educators and policy-makers must join forces to devise strategies that prioritize the mental wellbeing of children in this complex and evolving digital environment.

The internet provides children and young people with tremendous possibilities, enabling their active participation in society and facilitating their access to a vast array of educational resources and social interactions.

However, it is crucial to remain vigilant and proactive in addressing the associated mental health risks that come with this digital immersion.

How to contribute to children’s online safety

Beyond education and digital service providers, various sectors of society can significantly contribute to online safety and mental health. By developing and funding programmes that cultivate awareness, empathy and policies, we can enhance the mental health of children in the digital realm.

Recent surveys conducted in affluent nations have revealed a concerning trend – approximately one in nine youths experience unwanted online sexual solicitation, underscoring the urgency for preventive strategies. Furthermore, cyberbullying – which affects one in 10 children across seven European countries – remains a pervasive issue.

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Research emphasizes a strong connection between online and offline bullying, highlighting the need for a comprehensive approach. It is evident that the digital world’s impact on mental health is profound and multifaceted.

Given these threats and the rapid advancement of digital communication, ensuring responsible technology use by our children is of paramount importance, particularly for their mental health.

Mental health professionals, educators, parents, and children themselves are actively seeking ways to instil healthy practices, skills and habits that will nurture the mental wellbeing of our children.

How to prevent online violence against children

Fortunately, there has been a substantial increase in research literature focusing on the impact of the digital world on mental health, accompanied by rigorous scientific evaluations of intervention programmes.

A significant contribution was added in December 2022 when the World Health Organization (WHO) published its pivotal report What Works to Prevent Online Violence against Children.

This comprehensive report underscores the critical role of educational programmes targeting both children and parents, showcasing tangible reductions in violence victimization and perpetration levels.

The report provides specific recommendations, including training youth in essential life skills, integrating offline mental health promotion with online dangers, shifting the focus from exclusively stranger danger to include self-regulation, conflict resolution, disengage from risk, perspective taking, decision-making, healthy relationships and help seeking.

Moreover, the report offers strategies to enhance mental wellbeing within the digital environment, encompassing frequent reminders of website rules, readily accessible information on seeking help and reporting violations, automated detection and warnings of breaches, and educational tutorials about online mental health.

Additionally, the report emphasizes the importance of enforcing age requirements, consultation and testing for new apps to anticipate potential threats to mental health, and the development of standards for safe practices by online content providers.

‘Mental health is a universal human right’

In light of concerns about children's mental health in the digital realm, this year's World Mental Health Day theme, "Mental health is a universal human right", is an opportunity for action.

This theme is a reminder of the fundamental human right that mental health represents, emphasizing the necessity for accessible, equitable, and inclusive mental health care for everyone, including children and adolescents.

It is an urgent call to action to ensure that mental health services and support are available and affordable, and that the stigma associated with mental illness is actively challenged and eliminated.

The World Economic Forum's Global Coalition for Digital Safety has recently launched a new report — the Typology of Online Harms — aimed at categorizing and unifying perceptions of online threats impacting mental health.

This typology categorizes harms into three parts, content, contact, and conduct risks, paving the way for cohesive action. It incorporates regional and local contexts, acknowledging the complex and interconnected nature of online safety.

The framework addresses various harms, including threats to personal and community mental health, harm caused by harmful content, and violations of dignity and privacy through bullying and harassment affecting mental wellbeing.

It goes on further to infer that mental health harms can result from exposure to hate messages, harassment, threats, cyberbullying, sites that promote self-harm and suicide, extremisms and misinformation, people who may try to exploit them sexually or financially, who will steal their identity or vandalize their online content.

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By aligning with the commitment to foster a shared understanding of online harm issues, it complements efforts to promote digital safety. Fundamentally rooted in human rights principles, this typology provides a foundational common language to enable global multistakeholder cooperation.

It does not prescribe rigid regulations, but instead fosters a shared understanding to facilitate cooperation in combating online harms impacting mental health. The toolkit aims to define online harms and identify potential technological, policy, procedural and design interventions to advance digital safety in a mental health-respecting manner.

While acknowledging the immense benefits of internet access for children and young people, it is crucial to recognize that ensuring their mental wellbeing in the online world extends beyond the purview of education and digital service providers.

A concerted effort involving various sectors of society is essential to promote awareness, empathy, and policies that bolster the mental health of children in the digital realm.

Collective action on mental health needed

In conclusion, ensuring the mental wellbeing of children and adolescents in the digital era demands collective action and a multidimensional approach.

By prioritizing mental health education, implementing targeted interventions, and promoting a shared understanding of online threats to mental wellbeing, we can create a safer digital environment for our children and their mental health.

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What is the Forum doing to improve online safety?

It is crucial for stakeholders, including parents, educators, policymakers, mental health professionals, and technology providers, to work together and invest in strategies that empower children to navigate the digital world while prioritizing mental health.

By fostering digital citizenship and collaboration with a focus on mental wellbeing, we can equip our children with the mental resilience and knowledge they need to thrive in the digital age while safeguarding their mental health and ensuring a brighter future for all.

Mental health is indeed a universal human right, and it's our collective responsibility to ensure it is upheld and protected for every child, not just on World Mental Health Day, but every day.

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