The impact of social media

Impact of social media on mental health

One response on the letters page of the Guardian newspaper to a new survey on the impact of social media on young people, which found that large numbers of children are embarrassed by how they look was well, what’s new? To be fair to the letter writer (a doctor), she did not deny that social media was an aggravating factor – “the very real dangers of social media need to be detected and controlled” – but pointed out that dissatisfaction with how you look is a natural stage of the growing-up process. Nevertheless, in a week when the government’s proposed online safety bill is again in the news, the survey is a reminder of the potential damage that social media – and the online world more generally – can cause to the mental and physical wellbeing of us all – adults as well as children.

The survey – of 1,024 young people aged 12 to 21 – was published by the youth mental health charity stem4. It found that:

  • 77% of respondents are unhappy with how they look
  • 45% say they are regularly bullied by people they know or trolled online about their physical appearance

Respondents as young as 12 made comments such as “I’m fat”, “I’m embarrassed by my body” and “I’m not muscular enough”.

Other findings included:

  • 97% of respondents are now on social media, clocking up an average of 3.65 hours a day
  • 62% are worried that their mental health is being damaged by the online content pushed at them through social media algorithms and by the amount of time they are spending on social media
  • 95% say they feel helpless when it comes to quitting their online habit

The survey also found that children and young people are far more likely to turn to apps such as TikTok or Instagram when seeking to overcome negative feelings of low self-worth about their bodies than to family or friends – potentially trapping them in a negative loop of harmful information.

When young people use social media apps to look for much-needed information and advice, they find themselves presented with a supposed reality that is distorted and harmful. Their searches online then keep generating triggering content, which compounds the problem.

Dr Nihara Krause, consultant clinical psychologist, CEO and founder of stem4, quoted in the Guardian

It isn’t just social media, of course. In June we blogged about the impact of screen time – the amount of time spent using a device with a screen such as a smartphone, computer, television or video game console – on children’s physical and mental wellbeing. Among children, increases in screen time were found to be associated with inferior diet, poor eye health, deteriorating mental health (including anxiety) and behavioural problems such as aggression, irritability and the increased frequency of temper tantrums.

The stem4 survey was published in the same week that official data shows that the number of children needing treatment for serious mental health problems in England has risen by 39% in a year to more than 1.1 million. As we said last month, it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to use words like ‘crisis’ and ‘meltdown’ in the context of children and young people’s mental health.

Addressing this urgent and immediate demand is, of course, our first priority. But today’s children are tomorrow’s adults – and tomorrow’s workforce. Life-Based Learning is predicated on the idea that the life challenges that we all face, now and in the future, become the focus of a fully rounded life-based curriculum. One of the most important challenges is the ability to manage our mental health.

We need to raise our level of ambition and to embark on a long-term strategy, one that starts with children, supporting them as they grow to become happy, balanced and emotionally resilient adults, better able to lead a fulfilling life, weather life’s many storms and contribute productively to society.

Image at the head of this article by natureaddict from Pixabay.

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