In the last 20 years, the rise of social networking sites has been strongly correlated with increasing mental health rates among young people. The surge in popularity of these platforms have created a monumental shift in how children and young people interact and share information. Social media has become embedded into the lives of young people, with this online world seemingly inescapable. Whilst social media can bring many positives in terms of communication and self-expression, it can also foster stress and worry. Overall, the extent to which social media is harmful to mental health is largely dependent on type and frequency of use.
This blog will be discussing the extent to which social media contributes to rising mental health rates in young people. It will also explore the positives and negatives of these platforms.
What is Social Media?
Social media is described as websites and applications that facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas and interests through virtual communities. Traditional media, consisting of books, radio and newspapers, have been expanded by digital media, including the internet, TV and mobile phones, enabling individuals to be both creators and consumers of online content. This allows the sharing of knowledge and ideas to be available worldwide, quicker and easier than ever before.
History of Social Media
Social networking sites launched in 1997. SixDegrees was the first social media platform and allowed users to generate profiles, message friends and family and post on their pages. Despite this, it was not until 2003 that social media really took off with the introduction of MySpace and Facebook. However, these older forms of social media, are now being overtaken by newer platforms such as TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, all with different features and purposes.
Benefits of Social Media
One benefit of social media platforms is that they can provide a voice for young people who suffer with social anxiety and struggle to express themselves through face-to-face interactions. Therefore, social media creates a platform for self-expression and creativity.
Social movements rely on the power and scale of social media to spread messages, educate and raise awareness to important issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Similarly, in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, social media has become an essential tool for education and communication with friends and family.
Social media enables communication on a colossal scale allowing individuals to stay in contact with family and friends around the world. It also allows young people to access support and advice for their mental health issues.
Impact on Social Wellbeing
Social media can be detrimental to young people’s relationships by fuelling feelings of jealousy and mistrust. It is also important to note that social media can be damaging to friendships by creating and maximising issues through defriending and blocking. Despite this, social media may also address issues including social isolation and loneliness, by allowing young people to create virtual communities and find new friends who share similar interests.
FOMO and Addiction
The fear of missing out (FOMO) is one of the most prominent factors in driving addictive behaviour to social networking platforms. Exposure to other people’s social activities on these platforms can lead to users’ comparing their own social lives with that of their peers. FOMO can also foster exclusion in young adults by observing friends hanging out without them through social media.
Social media addiction refers to a psychological or behavioural dependence on these platforms. Research has also suggested that texting and notifications release the addictive chemical dopamine, the same chemical that is released when an individual smokes, drinks or gambles. This raises the debate as to whether industries should play a role in regulation and whether excessive social media use should be diagnosable as a form of behavioural addiction.
Mobile devices and computer screens, used to access social media, emit high levels of artificial blue light leading to sleep deprivation and disrupted sleep cycles. The brain reacts to the exposure of blue light by signalling the pineal gland to stop the production of melatonin which makes us feel tired.
Poor sleep is linked to a variety of physical and mental health conditions for young people including depression, weight issues and poor performance at school.
Cyber-bullying can take the form of a comment on someone’s profile, a private message or rumours posted online. Social media can magnify the issue of bullying by allowing perpetrators to act anonymously by hiding behind a screen and without consequences and accountability for their actions. This type of bullying can happen at any time and be either public or private.
Cyberbullying can have a devastating and often fatal, impact upon the lives and mental health of young people in the UK, making them reluctant to go to school, withdraw from family and friends and reducing motivation.
Impact on Self-Esteem
Lots of research suggest that there is a correlation between the amount of time spent on social media and its impact on young people’s self-esteem. Feelings of low self-esteem are accentuated by the design of these platforms. Young people are often guilty of judging their self-worth on external praise such as the amount of likes or comments that their post receives. Celebrities use Instagram to portray their exciting lifestyles and post photoshopped images of themselves, creating a breeding ground for toxic comparisons.
The Royal Society For Public Health survey studied how different media platforms impact young people’s wellbeing.
The results from the study signified that Instagram was ranked as the most negative platform in increasing rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep deprivation and FOMO. In comparison, YouTube was the most positive platform in comparison to Instagram and was seen to improve and reduce levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness whereas Instagram was seen to increase these factors.
Strategies to help social media addiction
- Set a limit for how long you use social media each day
- Turn off notifications
- Put your phone away from reach when you go to bed
- Find other hobbies to occupy your mind – reading, sports, cooking
Overall, social media has an impact on young people’s mental health and wellbeing to a large extent. However, it is important to note that it can have both positive and negative implications.
Positively, it gives people a voice, allows for self-expression, connects us with others and can power social change. However, social media is also associated with many negatives such as toxic comparisons, diminished self-image and social isolation, fuelling mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Social media can be a positive platform if used in the right way. It is vital for young people’s mental wellbeing that it is used for inspiration and education rather than for comparison.
Samaritans – You can talk to the Samaritans about anything, and they can help if you’re having a tough time. Call them for free on 116 123.
NSPCC Helpline – If you’re worried about an individual who is under 18, you can talk anonymously to the NSPCC Helpline to get support. Call for free on 0808 800 5000 or send a message online.
Childline – Childline is a free, private and confidential counselling service for young people under 19. Call them for free on 0800 1111 or find out how to get in touch online.
Mind – https://www.mind.org.uk/
Young Minds – https://www.youngminds.org.uk/
Rethink Mental Illness – https://www.rethink.org/
NHS Mental Health Services – https://www.nhs.uk/nhs-services/mental-health-services/
Showcase Training Mental Health Lead:
Nicola Bailey – Nicola.Bailey@showcasetraining.co.uk