“Thank you for welcoming me back, actually I was really touched by the amount of people who wanted to make sure I was ok. It’s a brilliant community here” Young person on Kooth

In 2018, the Kooth team spent more than 4,000 hours in schools and the community across England and Wales encouraging young people to go online.

This may seem counterintuitive to the discourse we’re so used to seeing in the media, where recent headlines include: Bedtime social media use may be harming UK teenagers, Facebook should pay a ‘mental health’ levy for the damage it causes, University switches off social media to help student well-being and the hard hitting story of Molly Russell whose father suggests Instagram helped kill his daughter (BBC, January 2019).

There have undoubtedly been unforeseen outcomes of the internet and the rise of social media platforms in the past 10 years, frequently becoming a source of blame for a rise in poor adolescent mental health.

Tim Berners-Lee recognised some of the downfalls of the internet in his recent letter of reflection following the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. He cites three sources of online dysfunction: deliberate and malicious intent, system design that creates perverse incentives and unintended negative consequences of benevolent design.

For adolescents on social media, this dysfunction might emerge as cyber-bullying, misinformed messaging informing destructive belief systems, increased pressure to belong or fit in, and unregulated information across a wealth of topics including mental health (Frith, 2017).

Despite all of this, the facts are that half the world’s population regularly uses the internet and a vast proportion are children and young people who have grown up with Sir Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. Rather than trying to limit usage we want to meet children and young people in this space and provide them the tools they require to remain safe and resilient.

In the past year Kooth saw record numbers of article views (257,764) and clicks to forum discussions (223,417), accompanied with feedback from young people about how helpful the online community within Kooth is. Though often thought of as a counselling platform, up to 60% of Kooth users will find what they are looking for from therapeutic – often co-produced – content, live peer-to-peer forums and online tools such as the mood tracker or online journal.

The social space provided on Kooth is not unlike other social media platforms. It provides a feed of information, gives young people the ability to scroll through content they want to engage in, and offers them the chance to comment. What does differ is the regulated safeguarding protocol built into the service, which filters out ‘harmful’ elements present on other popular social media platforms.

It also sits within a platform where all users are anonymous, where oversharing of personal (or any) imagery is not possible, and where there is no functionality for peer to peer private messaging.

Pre-moderating content is essential in developing a positive virtual ecology where a supportive community is encouraged; many popular social media sites are post-moderated.

Pre-moderation of all content including forum discussion posts, article comments and magazine articles prevents trolling from those who scour the internet to actively cause harm. It safeguards against triggering content, such as graphic self-harm, whilst also offering the author of that content support and signposting.

There are content boundaries written up for young people to review so they are aware when their content may be declined publication. This act in itself replicates adherence and respect for boundaries as is necessary in daily life.

In fact much of what happens within Kooth reflects relational behaviour offline. This is particularly powerful when considering how young people engage supportively with a social media platform, and how this can be reflected in their behaviour across other social media platforms.

We asked young people directly about the benefits of social media. Their responses exemplified the need for safety online. One young person told us: “Social media is fun. It’s a place where you can connect and talk to people without having to show your face. A place where making friends is actually easy”.

This individual infers that they are challenged by social situations offline, and perhaps highlights the potential vulnerability of young people using social media platforms.

Similarly, another young person suggests that when struggling with “mental health issues…it may be hard to interact [socially]” and that “sometimes talking behind a screen can make us feel more comfortable, especially on Kooth”.

Over the coming year, our clinical and evaluation teams are working to develop validated outcomes measures to demonstrate the value of safe and supported social media interaction – including peer-to-peer support – in more concrete terms.

This work will initially involve recognising the spectrum of outcomes that can be obtained from engagement with social and therapeutic content, both positive and negative. While validation, social connectedness, and improved knowledge might be among the positive outcomes attributed to social media engagement, there will always be those who are harmed through unhealthy attachment or increased distress.

Through understanding the full range of potential outcomes we will be able to focus our attention on preventative methods to see a reduction in the negative outcomes.

Parallel to this there will be a greater focus on therapeutic content to further utilise the platform where young people are already consuming trustworthy and information rich media.

There are so many channels for information seeking and social connection, with numerous benefits available to young people if used appropriately, we are one channel who wish to promote the benefits of the internet rather than simply a source for helping those who suffer as a result of the harms.