Self-harm, eating disorders, and anxiety and depression are likely to be the biggest risk factors facing young people in the coming years, a government think-tank has concluded.
A report by the government’s Horizon Scanning Team – a group of senior civil servants who meet to identify future trends – found that traditional “risky behaviours” by young people, such as drinking, smoking, taking drugs and criminal behaviour, are on the decline.
But it has identified self-harm, as well as social isolation, loneliness, anxiety and body appearance issues, as growing potential threats.
The report states that there is a shortage of reliable data on the extent of self-harm by adolescents, largely because it is an issue that “many people will keep hidden and not seek help for”.
It references a 2002 survey by the British Medical Journal in which 6.9% of 15- and 16-year-olds reported that they had self-harmed, and a 2013/14 World Health Organisation survey in which 20% of 15-year-olds taking part reported having self-harmed, as an indication the issue may be getting worse.
“It is possible that self-harm is on the increase,” the report states.
The report also highlights social isolation as an issue facing young people, pointing to research showing that UK young people aged between 18 and 34 are just as likely to often feel lonely as older age groups and are more likely to have felt depressed because they felt alone.
“For some people, loneliness may be associated with excessive internet use,” it states. "Social isolation is also a potential consequence of unemployment and may lead to wider negative impacts.”
The report also highlights emerging risk behaviours associated with the rising use of digital media such as early sexualisation, cyberbullying and violent computer games.
“There is clear evidence that moderate use of technology is likely to have significant positive impacts, such as improved wellbeing and social connectedness,” the report states.
“However, for the small minority of young people who use technology heavily, there could be a range of negative impacts.
It is possible that this trend could intensify as young people’s social interactions become increasingly technologically mediated by new devices and applications.
This implies that young people may need support to ensure they use technologies in a way that encourages wellbeing, and to ensure that the quantity and content of technology they use is not having a detrimental impact.”