Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s national director for mental health, said the campaign for people to sign up for a “Scroll-Free September” highlighted growing concerns that social media was contributing to a potential “epidemic” in mental ill health among young people.
The campaign is the brainchild of Britain’s oldest public health body, The Royal Society for Public Health, whose poll to launch it showed two thirds of people would consider giving up social media for the 30 days of September. It is the first time it has been tried anywhere in the world.
Ms Murdoch said the crisis fuelled by social media demonstrated why there needed to be “a major ramp up of services to deal with the mental health problems as part of the NHS 10-year plan”.
She added: “We need to see concerted action, with everyone taking responsibility, including social media giants, so the NHS is not left to pick up the pieces of a mental health epidemic in the next generation.”
In the royal society poll, a third of social media users and half of young users, aged 18 to 34, believed quitting social media for a month would help them sleep, better improve their real-world relationships and benefit their mental health and well being.
In an exclusive article for The Daily Telegraph to launch the initiative, Shirley Cramer, the royal society’s chief executive, said its own research showed social media increased young people’s anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, body image concerns and fear of missing out through the addictive psychological techniques used by the firms to keep people online.
Echoing the Telegraph’s Duty of Care campaign for greater legal protection of children against online harms, she said the social media firms needed to “redesign their products with human well being at their core – not as an afterthought.”
She added: “Another part of that rebalancing is about examining and retaking control of our own relationships with social media. That is why, today, we are announcing the launch of the first ever Scroll Free September – a unique opportunity to break from all social media accounts for 30 days.”
As evidence of the addictive quality of social media, half of 18 to 34 year olds admitted it would be hard or “impossible” to give up social media for 30 days. One in 10 18 to 24 year olds said it would be impossible.
The royal society, the world’s oldest public health body, is therefore offering some “scroll-free-lite” options for people signing up to the campaign website which include giving up social media in the evening, at social events, in the bedroom, at work or at school.
Scroll Free September mirrors similar campaigns including Movember (to promote men’s health), Stoptober (to encourage smokers to quit the habit) and Dry January (to refrain from alcohol after the potential excesses of the festive season).
The new initiative is also being backed by NHS Scotland, Public Health England’s Rise Above campaign and MPs including the all-party parliamentary group on social media and young people’s mental health which last month launched an inquiry into the impact of social media.
Research by the royal society found one in five people lost sleep during the night to check messages. It also found heavier users of social media – particularly girls – were more likely to report poor mental health and seven in 10 young people had experienced cyberbullying.
It wants social media firms to do more to identify people with mental health problems and provide advice to them, introduce pop-up heavy use warnings at, for example, two-hour intervals and for digitally-manipulated photographs to be tagged as such.
It is also proposes children should have lessons in how to handle social media as part of compulsory Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) lessons.