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We need to harness social media to help young people

In my discussions with parents, young people and others in communities across WA, one of the most pressing, unmet and, sometimes, misunderstood needs raised with me is the mental health of our children and young people.

I am consistently told that mental health services for WA children and young people are at or near capacity, and children and young people living in regional and remote areas are particularly disadvantaged because of the difficulty in getting to locations where services are delivered.

Children and young people’s high usage of social media and technology and the invasiveness of these mediums are often-cited causes of increased mental stress and anxiety.

These concerns are valid, however, young people tell me technology is ingrained in their daily life — it connects and supports their lives and provides opportunities that older generations never dreamt of accessing.

Accepting and seeking to better understand the strengths of social media and technology is a vital step in our ability to better support children and young people’s mental health.

The need for innovation in mental health service delivery, including the use of emerging technology and social media, was a recommendation in a report I tabled in the WA Parliament in 2015,Our Children Can’t Wait .

This report on the status of the State’s mental health services for children and young people found that despite some improvements in the previous five years, there are still significant gaps in services which are putting children and young people’s mental wellbeing at risk, particularly in regional and remote areas of WA.

This is not a simple issue to tackle — the vast size and culturally diverse nature of our State presents huge challenges to government and non-government organisations working in this area.

This is why I am working to promote and advocate for a strong focus on technology and social media in mental health service delivery.

One of the ways in which I am attempting to stimulate progress in this area is by appointing e-mental health researcher and advocate Professor Jane Burns as my 2016-17 Thinker in Residence.

Professor Burns will be the fourth Thinker in Residence appointed by the Commissioner’s office, an initiative which has been successful in providing WA practitioners and decision-makers with access to world-leading child-health researchers.

During her career Professor Burns has focused on making practical and positive change in the community and the mental health sector, with a priority on uniting young people with researchers, practitioners and innovators to explore how technology and social media can improve mental health programs and services.

I am very pleased that several government and non-government agencies and industry leaders are partnering with my office and keen to explore how Professor Burns’ work and research can be applied here in WA.

Another related area of Professor Burns’ research is on what she calls “digital resilience”. The development of resilience in children and young people is important to enable them to deal with the challenges that arise in life, be mentally strong and thrive.

Being resilient in the online world is just as important, but this requires a different set of skills and understandings.

Much of our discussions about children and young people’s use of social media and technology is about keeping them safe, and this is obviously incredibly important, but monitoring and controlling their access to social media becomes increasingly difficult as children get older.

Professor Burns’ research has identified methods by which parents can support children and young people to develop the skills and understanding to safely navigate their online environments and find positive information and networks.

Parents will have the opportunity to hear about this work at a seminar Professor Burns is holding next month.

As with all aspects of wellbeing, working with children and young people and understanding how they perceive and manage their world is essential if we are to know how to help them.

Social media and technology has great potential to benefit children and young people’s lives and it is vital we learn how to better to harness its power.

Colin Pettit, Commissioner for Children and Young People WA.

* As submitted to The West Australian 26 September 2016


More information about the Thinker in Residence and the parents’ seminar is at