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Social Media, Young People and their Mental Health

The recent Facebook outage gave an opportunity for us all to reflect on the impact of social media on the mental health of young people and ourselves, writes Dr Jon Van Niekerk, Cygnet’s Group Clinical Director, in his latest blog to mark World Mental Health Day 2021.

MILLIONS of young people’s mental health may be adversely affected by social media networks and Facebook, who also owns Instagram and Whatsapp platforms, knew this from an internal study. That was the testimony of a former Facebook employee and whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, who claimed that Facebook had conducted research into negative effects on the mental health of teenagers, but downplayed its significance in public.

She also warned Facebook’s algorithms were “dangerous” and said Facebook executives were aware of the threat but put profits before safety and well-being. Research shared with Facebook employees on an internal message board included findings that “32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse”. It is important to understand that these studies have not been peer-reviewed, but they do point to concern about the impact of social media on young people’s mental health.

At Cygnet, we are seeing a number of young people spending more time on social media, and we regularly hear pleas from families for help. While social media has many benefits, helping young people to maintain social connections and support networks, and to access more information than ever before, it has also been associated with an increase in self-harm and feelings of depression and hopelessness in some young people.

One in five young people wake up regularly during the night to send or check messages on social media, making them more likely to feel constantly tired at school. What we also see is the misery inflicted on young people where they constantly compare themselves to each other, or feel they are missing out, and where they feel pressured to present a false self that can lead to further feelings of low self-worth. The platforms have also had an effect on bullying, which now is extended beyond school hours and can become unrelenting for young people.

The apparent reluctance of social media platforms to fully acknowledge their role in all this reminds me of the infamous case of the “seven dwarfs” of the Tobacco industry. These were the top executives of the seven largest American tobacco companies who testified in the US Congress in 1994 that they did not believe that cigarettes were addictive. This was amid evidence that internal studies showing that animals could become addicted to nicotine had been supressed, and that nicotine levels in some cigarettes were being manipulated to ensure fast uptake and enhance addiction.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok rely heavily on Artificial Intelligence algorithms to rank and recommend content. There is increasing evidence that the positive social media feedback loop is also chemically mediated and that tech companies are exploiting this. You might have heard about the neurotransmitter Dopamine playing a role.

Dopamine is a chemical produced by the brain that plays a powerful role in reward, motivation and pleasure. As a recent Harvard blog warned: “Platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible.”

If there was any doubt, in 2018, a former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook told an audience of Stanford students: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

Social media and the use of smartphones have become very prominent in the lives of children. Figures produced by Ofcom indicated that 70% of 12–15 year olds have a profile on social media, while the OECD reported in 2015 that 94.8% of 15 year olds in the UK used social media sites before or after school. There are 48 million active social media users in the UK, 67% of the UK population.

There are many positives to social media use as well, but what we haven’t got to grips yet is to ensure that we control it to enhance our social lives and not be controlled by it. There is real concern that young people spend more time on social media than participating in real life activities and that is related to feeling worse. Research showed that over a third of 15-year olds use the internet for six hours or more a day.

In 2017 a large national survey showed that those showing most signs of addictive behaviors were more likely to be women, young and single. A growing body of evidence also suggests that social media addiction follows similar behavioral patterns of known chemical addictions, such as drug abuse and alcoholism. The recent Facebook outage gave us time to reflect on the impact of social media on the mental health of young people and also ourselves. What we as mental health professionals must highlight to young people is the risks and work with them to limit their time on social media and try to use it in a positive and safe way, whilst not being overly restrictive or imposing rules that inhibit a regular activity for young people.

We should not medicalise regular behaviours and ensure we work with young people to ensure there is a healthy balance. There is some evidence that the exposure to social media follows an upside down U-curve and increasing time on your smartphone can be positively associated with well-being, but there is a threshold where it starts having a negative effect. Like most things in life – moderation is the key.

The quality of our relationships with others also requires that we give each other attention, that we are present. The temporary distraction that social media offers might have too high a cost if it affects the quality of being present for those we care for the most in our lives. Put your phone away this Word Mental Health day and be present for those you care for the most.

Some Tell-tale signs you might be addicted to social media

  • Your sleep is affected – this can be related to the blue light emitted by your phone
  • You are constantly checking your phone
  • When constantly checking social media is detracting you from normal things you might be enjoying
  • It is affecting your relationships. Do you find people around you complain that you are not listening to them, or they want a connection and you just can’t give this?
  • Where you are losing time. Do you ever find you’ve spent so much time checking emails or on social media that you lose track of time. Suddenly an hour has gone and you feel guilty. These are some of the signs that you need to start cutting back

For tips on building a healthier relationship with Social Media and your Smartphone please see this article by the Center for Humane Technology

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