Jon Ashworth

Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, explains why he is supporting Scroll Free September

I’ve just completed my very first ‘digital detox’. Throughout August I stopped Tweeting, Snapchatting, uploading pictures onto Instagram and scrolling through Facebook. With Party conference fast approaching, taking a break in September was a bit too much of an ask for me! 

I think my time off social media has been more productive. I’ve had time to go through emails properly, read policy papers without distraction and in my downtime read novels, newspapers and generally get on with things without looking at Twitter regularly. I would thoroughly recommend it.

Missing out on the regular ranting, shouting and traducing of those with whom one disagrees- sadly what Twitter and Facebook appears to be all about these days- has been a real tonic. 

Indeed my ‘detox’ provoked a negative reaction I wasn’t anticipating. One regular Twitter correspondent who often passionately lets me know Brexit should be blocked told me it was ‘marvellously convenient’ that I wouldn’t be there to respond to his missives about Brexit.

Meanwhile over on Facebook a gentleman from Doncaster seemed especially upset. ‘This is b****cks’ he told me while another was equally cynical: ‘why not say you’re going on holiday’. Yes, I did have two weeks in the Mediterranean sun and a short break in a Skegness caravan but that hasn’t stopped me checking social media and responding in the past.

There are, however, certainly downsides from a month’s abstinence which impact on how effectively I do my job. I’ve realised I totally depend on #tomorrowspaperstoday to know what the news agenda for the next morning will be, I follow all kinds of health campaigners, NHS staff and journalists and I’ve genuinely missed their insights and thoughts. Indeed I think I first came across RSPH’s #ScrollFreeSeptember campaign by spotting it on Twitter.

The average Briton today checks their phone every 12 minutes, spending much of that time on social media seeking the latest news, opinions and articles. Above all, children and young people have pioneered this digital revolution. Digital technologies are the present and future of our 21st Century children - they will define their opportunities as workers and as citizens. 

I spent the first 31 years of my life without Twitter or Facebook but the same can’t be said for today’s children and young people. 91 per cent of 16-24 year olds use the internet for social networking.

The immediacy and reach of social media has opened up all kinds of positive opportunities for children as they grow. They can make new friends, increase their knowledge of current affairs and feel more emotionally supported through their contacts.

However, it is also well established that considerable social media use often increases young people’s anxiety, body image concerns and sleeping difficulties. Around 5 per cent of young people are said to be addicted to social media and some campaigners have even gone as far as to suggest social media is more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol.

Teenagers are now so invested in social media that a fifth of secondary school pupils wake up at night and log on to social media, just to make sure they don’t miss out.

Anxiety and depression in young people have increased by 70 per cent over the past 25 years. One in six young people will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.  RSPH has found that young people themselves say four of the five most used social media platforms make their feelings of anxiety worse. 

Research shows young people spending more than two hours per day on sites like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram are more likely to report poor mental health, including anxiety and depression. That’s why tackling the unique pressures this digital generation faces online is part of my driving mission as Shadow Health Secretary to make Britain’s children the healthiest in the world.

And it’s why I’m endorsing RSPH’s Scroll Free September campaign, which encourages participants to take a break from social media for 30 days. Given the crisis in children’s mental health, with 3 in 4 children with a diagnosable mental health condition not receiving the support they need, we cannot afford to be Luddite in our approach.

It is time to consider excessive social media use to be the next great public health challenge facing our nation. Labour will not let our children down.