So much work has been done over the past year to remove the stigma surrounding mental health, encouraging us all to speak more openly about our struggles and prioritise wellbeing.
Yet while the taboos are being broken down from an adult perspective, for children the challenge of communicating their feelings about their mental health is starting at an increasingly young age.
One in 10 children have a diagnosable mental health disorder, equivalent to roughly three children in every classroom, according to data from mental health charity Young Minds. In fact, half of all mental health problems manifest themselves by the age of 14.
Furthermore, almost one in four children and young people show some evidence of ill mental health, including anxiety and depression, according to Young Minds. The impact of poor mental health in childhood can have serious repercussions in later life, with as many as one in three adult mental health conditions relating directly to adverse childhood experiences.
Comic and entertainment franchise Beano Studios is collaborating with Young Minds on a content partnership that will communicate directly with primary school children about emotional literacy, recognising the signs of mental health problems and where to get help.
Content has been carefully co-created and grounded in scientific evidence, so we know it’s making a meaningful impact on a young person’s self-esteem and body confidence.
Sophie Galvani, Dove
To celebrate the comic’s 80th anniversary in July, Beano.com will be putting the focus on mental health, releasing specially themed videos, quizzes and ‘slow content’. Research shows that slow videos of optical illusions or things being ‘squished’ are watched by the Beano’s young audience when they want to decompress after school.
Beano Studios CMO Iain Sawbridge says the Beano brand’s positive outlook made the Young Minds partnership a good fit.
“We’re a super positive brand and we want to inspire kids with optimism and positivity, as well as a bit of mischief, so we looked for a charity partner who shared that philosophy and works to make kids’ lives happier,” he explains.
“I also think there’s something in the DNA of the Beano characters. They’re joyously and happily imperfect, and we feel strongly that kids should embrace that feeling.”
It is hard to escape the link increasingly being made between exposure to social media at a young age and the rise in children’s mental health problems. A YouGov study commissioned by Beano Studios found that more than half of parents believed the internet contributes to poor mental health in children under 12.
The report also found only a third of parents under 34 feel confident talking to their children about online safety, with just 44% saying they understand Instagram and 28% know how to navigate Snapchat.
Sawbridge acknowledges that social media contributes to the mental health issues affecting children, along with fears about the world at large and the added pressure being applied at school.
This makes understanding ‘Generation Alpha’, the collective name for children born from 2010 onwards, all the more crucial. Beano insight shows them to be a sensitive, thoughtful, inclusive and positive generation of children with a high degree of emotional literacy, which of course could still be improved upon.
Brands that have products, content or services aimed at Generation Alpha have a responsibility to find authentic ways to address their issues around self-esteem and mental health, says Sawbridge, who believes the best way to do this is through fun.
“We talk about popping pomposity as part of our mischievous rebellion and the partnership with Young Minds is about popping taboos,” he explains.
“Young Minds are really passionate that we don’t hold back. They say one of the things people struggle with on mental health is that everyone is treading on eggshells and you never really get into the proper meat of it. You don’t have fun so you end up with stuff that isn’t entertaining. It’s a very serious subject, but we want to create content that is fun, as well as helpful.”
Bossing your digital life
It is undeniable that children’s exposure to the online world is happening at a younger age. Data from Ofcom’s Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report, released in November, reveals 53% of those aged three to four go online for eight hours a week, with 48% of this young age group using YouTube.
Some 79% of children aged five to seven go online for nine hours a week, with as many 5% owning a smartphone. Furthermore 3% of these children have a social media profile, despite the age limit to join most social sites being 13. The exception is WhatsApp, which plans to raise the age limit to 16 in the EU ahead of the implementation of GDPR on 25 May.
In the eight to 11 age group, smartphone ownership shoots up to 39%, with 94% of children going online for more than 13 hours a week. Despite being underage, 23% of children in this age group have a social media profile, according to Ofcom. This breaks down to 12% of children aged nine, 28% aged 10 and 46% aged 11.
Kids are really interested in the big issues, they just have to be delivered in a way that is on their wavelength.
Claire Stocks, BBC
As many as 99% of children aged 12-15 go online for 21 hours a week and 74% have a social media profile. The most popular is Facebook (74%), followed by Snapchat (58%), Instagram (57%) and WhatsApp (32%).
The Ofcom research reveals that 13% of 12- to 15-year-olds say getting likes or followers is more important than keeping their posts, comments or photos private, with a further 13% saying the pressure to look popular on social media is there ‘all the time’.
In response to the fact children are going online younger, brands and content producers are putting greater focus on helping kids manage their digital lives.
This is true of the BBC, which in December launched Own It, a website aimed at children aged nine to 12, offering tips, insight, stories and advice to help them ‘be the boss of their online life’.
The website is designed to help children develop confidence and resilience in the digital environment, offering help on things such as how to prevent strangers for sending instant messages and what to do if their Instagram account is hacked.
“Own It is part of the BBC’s £34m Kids 2020 strategy to transform its services for children in a changing media landscape,” explains head of interactive at BBC Children’s, Claire Stocks.
“So while we are moving more of our budgets, content and development focus to digital platforms and digital content, we also take very seriously the challenges that digital media throw up for our youngest citizens.”
Created by young people, influencers and vloggers, the content also addresses friendship issues, meanness and social pressures to help children develop confidence and resilience online. Short-form videos, games, quizzes, listicles, gifs and memes prove particularly popular.
Stocks argues that children’s voices are often not heard in what is effectively an “adult-based mainstream media”, which is why BBC Children’s sees itself as a champion for the child’s voice in society.
“Of course our media landscape has changed – the growth of things like YouTube and gaming mean kids do now expect to see themselves reflected, and respond to brands that do this well,” she adds.
“Kids are really interested in the big issues, they just have to be delivered in a way that is on their wavelength.”
Delivering through design
Thinking about how to deliver a greater sense of wellbeing has been a big focus for smartphone maker Motorola, which in February released its Phone-Life Balance study into the impact tech has on its consumers’ lives.
According to the research, 53% of children aged 11 to 16 describe their phone as their ‘best friend’. Looking specifically at Gen Z, 59% admit “when I feel lonely, I check my smartphone”, while 48% say if they didn’t have a smartphone they “would feel isolated”.
Motorola CMO Jan Huckfeldt believes it is time we “radically reassess” our relationships with our smartphones, identifying four key areas of affecting young people in particular.
“There is the fear of missing out, the anxiety, the impact in terms of lack of sleep, the impact on productivity and creativity,” he notes.
Beano characters are joyously and happily imperfect, and we feel strongly that kids should embrace that feeling.
Iain Sawbridge, Beano Studios
“Today it is really difficult, especially for kids, as research shows they look at their phone every seven minutes. If you’re constantly distracted it’s really hard to get into that mindset of full productivity and creativity.”
Motorola is working extensively on improving the functionality of its AI assistant Moto Voice. The idea is that instead of opening your phone, Moto Voice will respond to contextual commands, preventing your attention from getting sucked away into your phone.
“I call it the rabbit-hole, like in Alice in Wonderland. People go down that hole and suddenly 20 minutes later you’re still on your phone with something that could have taken you 20 seconds,” says Huckfeldt.
“If you get a text, an email message or Snapchat alert you can react to it on screen without unlocking your phone. You can be very surgical about it and focus on that one item, so you don’t get into the phone and start getting lost.”
Motorola’s research also shows that 25% of Gen Z say their smartphone has caused them problems in a relationship, with 23% reporting that their family has complained about their smartphone use.
To combat these issues Motorola has designed its Moto Z device with a series of modifications to make the phone more social, from enabling users to screen videos using a projector to diverting their music through speakers so they can listen with friends.
Companies have a responsibility to think about how their behaviour is impacting on young people says Huckfeldt, who believes that designing products in an empathetic way will always be the best thing for the brand.
So much of young people’s confidence and happiness is tied up with how they feel about their appearance. This has been a central focus for Unilever brand Dove ever since it launched the Self-Esteem Project back in 2004.
Aimed at creating a positive and universally accessible experience of beauty, the Dove Self-Esteem Project has become the biggest provider of self-esteem education globally. Dove works with body image experts and universities to develop evidence-based and academically validated educational tools and workshops for schools, youth leaders, parents and organisations.
To date, Dove estimates the project has improved the self-esteem and confidence of 20 million young people across 138 countries, with it hopes to grow this number to 40 million by 2020.
Sophie Galvani, global Dove vice-president, acknowledges that children’s media has a powerful influence on young viewers’ emotional intelligence, with stereotypes around physical ideals being particularly widespread on screen.
That is why in April Dove decided to take its self-esteem education directly to young people through a new two-year global partnership with Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, a half-human, half-gem cartoon hero with magical powers. The idea is to educate young people about body confidence through the cartoon’s themes of inclusivity and empowerment.
“We’re going directly to them in a medium they know and love, something that has never been done before. We’ve created a series of six short, animated films, each directed by the show’s creator Rebecca Sugar, the first of which is on air now,” Galvani explains.
“Working with our Dove Self-Esteem Project experts, all content has been carefully co-created and grounded in scientific evidence, so we know it’s making a meaningful impact on a young person’s self-esteem and body confidence. Through this partnership, we will reach an additional 20 million lives.”
As experts continue to make the connection between online exposure at a young age and children’s issues with mental health, brands will need to find creative and relevant ways to arm kids with the resilience and confidence needed to navigate their way through an increasingly overwhelming digital world.
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