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Why we need to talk about social media use and mental health among young people

August 8th, 2018 by Ben Scott

An epidemic is underway in the UK.

Let me set the scene. If you are a girl in the UK, there’s a 25% chance you will experience depression by the age of 14. If you are an adult in the UK with a mental illness, there’s a 75% chance that the illness started when you were a child. If you are a young person aged 20 to 34 in the UK, the greatest threat to your life is suicide.

Rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by a staggering 70% in the last twenty five years. Another shocking statistic; made all the more shocking when we consider that certain harmful behaviours are on the decline. Underage drinking, drug taking and smoking have all decreased. In addition, the teen pregnancy rate in England and Wales is the lowest on record.

But why has the rate of mental illness exploded in the UK in the last twenty years, especially when young people are taking better care of their physical health?

Part of the issue is that as mental health has become more prominent in the public eye, more young people have started to open up about their struggles. Despite the poor record of tracking mental health in the past, however, many people agree that the mental health crisis is a relatively recent thing.

When you delve even further into the statistics, it’s hard to argue otherwise. To take another alarming example, it’s thought that more than half of UK teachers are dealing with a mental health problem on a daily or weekly basis.

depressed-mixed-race-girl

So what has brought on the crisis amongst our young people? Well, many studies suggest that one of the causes of the crisis is the damaging effect of social media on young people. To be clear, no one is saying that social media in and of itself is causing depression in young people. Rather, it is the way young people are using it, the time they are spending on it, and the false truths they are picking up from it which are leading to increased levels of depression and anxiety amongst teenagers and young adults.

Social media can be just as damaging as it can be connecting. Although studies are still ongoing, it's thought that hours upon hours spent on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat can lead to potential attention deficit problems and addiction. Such things can be extremely detrimental to young people in the build up to exams, and an inability to focus on revision can very quickly lead to higher levels of stress. All this is not good for a young person’s mental health and could be one of the causes of the increased rates.

Young people can use social media in other extremely unhealthy ways. For example, it can be used as a source of emotional validation. Yes, a certain amount of likes, followers, retweets or regrams can briefly bring a person fulfilment. However, social media is an extremely risky place to get validation from - after all, there will always be someone with more likes than you.

The instant comparison young people make with their peers can leave them feeling broken, empty and lonely. True emotional validation cannot come from Facebook, and pursuing such validation from social media platforms leaves young people feeling inadequate. This could possibly be another reason why mental health issues in young people have skyrocketed in the last two decades.

The false perceptions young people pick up from social media can be ruinous to their mental health. Social media presents itself as real life, but most social media accounts blur the lines between reality and fantasy. People put filters, edits, and hashtags on their posts to create a remarkably false perception of what their lives are like. The issue is everyone knows what their lives are actually like but they don't know what everyone else's lives are like - leading to a distorted view of the world.

child-playing-with-social-media-themed-cubes

A clear link between social media use and mental anguish of course remains largely theoretical, though I’m far from the the only one suggesting these things. As a teenager myself, I can tell you that I have experienced all of these unhealthy facets of social media and felt the effects they had on my mental health.  

In light of this, here are three quick tips on how to use social media in a healthy and helpful way:

1) Limit the time you spend on social media.

Someone once coined the phrase everything in moderation. This is remarkably true. I’m not saying don’t use social media ever - I’m saying use it in healthy amounts of time.

2) Don’t seek emotional validation from social media.

This one is simple. You will never find emotional validation through social media, so don’t look for it there.

3) Don’t let filters fool you.

Although the world presented through social media is an alluring one, in many cases it’s actually a false perception of reality. Don’t be tricked into thinking anything else.

Further reading

Young Minds is a fantastic charity that offers help and support networks to young people struggling with their mental health.

Our article offers advice on how to reach out for help if you're struggling with depression or anxiety.

This article from Jenny Eclair in The Independent explores the ‘epidemic’ of social media addiction.

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