How social media affects mental health in young people

Jeremy Hunt has recently warned companies like Facebook and Google that they face new laws relating to social media and young people, because social media exposes children to ‘harm’.

But is it really as simple as that?

If there’s one person who knows about young people’s mental health its campaigner and TES columnist Natasha Devon MBE.

Ms Devon spends much of her time visiting schools and talking to young people about her experience.

In her new book, A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental, An A-Z From Anxiety To Zero F**ks Given, there are whole chapters on the topic.

She says: ‘I don’t think any reasonable person would contest that social media and smart phones are having a dramatic impact on how we think and behave.

‘I also believe the government could play a role in regulation by, for example, providing public health guidelines around screen time and social media exposure for both children and adults.

‘Jeremy Hunt’s efforts last month felt tokenistic and ego-driven.

‘Facebook and Google are American companies over which he has no authority and therefore there was no recourse to action when they inevitably failed to meet his demands.’

A recent survey conducted across Bauer Media found only 16 per cent of British people think social media is adversely affecting their mental health, with workload and money worries ranking as much more pressing concerns.

Ms Devon says: ‘Not for the first time, it seems as though Jeremy Hunt is scapegoating social media to detract from the ways his government has detrimentally impacted the mental health of the nation, not least by child and adolescent mental health services by at least £85 million since 2010.’

Of course, we know that social media can have a negative impact on people’s mental health, but it can also have positive effects.

Jodie, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, finds comfort in the online mental health community.

She says: ‘I have found social media to be a wonderful place to connect with like-minded individuals.

It’s nice to know there are people out there who understand, and who offer encouraging words when needed.

‘During the depths of a depressive episode I often find myself isolated from the world, not wanting to leave the house, or even my bedroom so to have the ability to connect and reach out to people through social media proved to be particularly helpful.’

Even though online communities can provide positive benefits, it’s still useful to monitor usage.

Jodie added: ‘When I first joined social media as a campaigner I found myself replying to every single message I received and becoming emotionally invested in everyone’s wellbeing.

‘After a while it became too much and I burned out.

‘I now go periods of time without going on social media, deleting the apps altogether and taking a detox from technology which I have found important in learning that I can say no, and don’t have to agree to every single opportunity or accept every single message request if I don’t have the emotional or physical capacity to do so.’

According to Claire Kelly, director of curricula and training at the Mindfulness in Schools project and a parent to two young social media users, we need to be more mindful of how we use technology – especially as parents to younger children.

She says: “It’s important first to remind ourselves that what we as parents do become the model for our younger children’s behaviour.

‘Of course, older, pre-teen and teenage children may no longer feel the need to use us as role models (quite the opposite in fact), but they continue to use their parents as a gauge of what’s OK.

‘Before we turn our attention to protecting our children from the potentially harmful effects of “too much” or “inappropriate” use of technology, we must first examine our own relationship with it.’

Ms Kelly suggests we turn to mindfulness to help us train our brains and have a more positive relationship with social media.

She adds: “Among the many skills you learn through regular mindfulness practice is the ability to train your attention.

‘With regular commitment to simple practices, you can begin to notice the mind’s natural tendency to wander (perhaps towards the laptop on the table or the email chain you feel you need to contribute to) and then gently guide it back to a more nourishing state of present moment awareness.’

Overuse can be bad for anyone at any age, but it can prove especially detrimental for people who live with some mental illnesses.

Ms Devon explains: ‘Over-stimulation and sleep deprivation are harmful to anyone but if you have bipolar disorder it might make it more likely you’ll have an episode of psychosis, for example.

‘There is also an anecdotal link I’ve observed during my visits to schools between large amounts of social media use and anxiety.’

Social media and smart phones aren’t going anywhere, and Ms Devon thinks we need to accept that.

‘Lamenting the passing of a bygone era where everything was simpler and more innocent is a waste of time and energy. ‘Instead, focus on establishing healthy boundaries.

‘Studies show the young people most vulnerable to other types of addiction, for example alcohol, tend to fall into two categories representing opposite ends of a binary – either no parental guidance and rules, or extreme control and strictness.

‘A happy medium is establishing some rules (such as no phone use after two hours before bedtime), but allowing them to explore within parameters.’

Ms Devon can understand Jodie’s experience and says that the biggest benefit of online activity is the opportunity to find people with similar experiences and to feel less alone.

She added: ‘The biggest risk, however, is somewhat paradoxically, isolation and loneliness.

‘Social media represents a very specific sort of connection and it’s not enough to completely nourish the human soul.’

So as with many things in life – we should enjoy social media as part of a balanced diet.

One that includes real interactions, conversations and mindfulness.

But let’s not demonise the fantastic opportunities it offers us all – let’s just find a healthier way of using those opportunities.