In my role as a counsellor working with children and adolescents, I am privileged that young people feel safe enough to be able share worries and problems with me that they often feel unable to discuss with anyone else. However, armed with the insight of a life as a teenager I feel terrified about what lies ahead for my own children as they head towards adolescence.
Over the past few years I have witnessed the number of young people wanting to access counselling almost double as an alarming number of young people are being diagnosed with depression, anxiety and other mental health related problems. Recent research suggests that 1 in 5 young people now suffer from a mental illness (teen mental health, 2016). It has been acknowledged that the key to addressing this problem is to improve access to services for children and young people and whilst I believe this to be true there is a question to be answered. ‘Why today are so many young people struggling with their mental health?
I believe there is no coincidence between a generation exposed to the increased use of social media and the increase in problems with young people’s mental health, which I know other professionals also share. During my sessions with young people I hear first-hand the devastating impact that social media is having on young people’s mental health either consciously or unconsciously to them. Unfortunately, present research is limited, so finding the evidence to prove that social media is the catalyst to young people’s mental health problems is difficult and without evidence it is much harder to generate the attention that this subject so urgently needs, so my concern as a professional and a parent is growing fast.
Adding to my concerns is the ever increasing demand for counselling in primary schools. Again, I have witnessed social media playing an active part in the problems these children are facing with body image, self-esteem and attempts at self-harm. I was recently dismayed to discover children as young as 8 were actively using social media and by navigating through Instagram had been exposed to some extremely shocking and disturbing videos of people committing suicide and self-harming.
Many schools educate young people about the dangers of the internet and social media use during PSHE lessons, however this only scratches the surface and is simply not enough. Without the insight of understanding how social media is impacting on young people’s mental health how can schools and parents know where to start in protecting them. Parents are often out of touch with technology and find monitoring children’s online activity a difficult task especially when most young people I speak to are already one step ahead of their parents.
By understanding that the adolescent brain works differently to an adult brain we can begin to understand why adolescents are much more likely to take risks, have limited capacity to self-regulate and are susceptible to peer pressure. For adolescents, the reasoning part of the brain (the cerebral) is still developing so they are often unable to think things through rationally. This can be risky when navigating through social media as teens will act impulsively and dangerously without weighing up consequences of their actions. That’s why it’s so important for parents to be educated about how social media works, what the dangers are and have measures in place to protect them.
A recent study by young mind matters initiative (2016) found that 81% of parents with Adolescents blamed social media for making them more vulnerable to mental health problems which is a staggering number.
There is a list of statistics referenced at the bottom of the page but here I have identified the highlights:
1. 88% of teens have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on a social networking site.
2. The number of sexual assault cases related to social media sites has increased by 30%.
3. 12% of teens say they witnessed unpleasant behavior “frequently” on social networking sites.
4. 41% of teens had a negative experience as a result of using a social networking site.
5. 67% of teenagers say they know how to hide what they do online from their parents.
6. 43% of teens say they would change their online behavior if they knew that their parents were watching them.
7. 39% think their online activity is private from everyone, including parents.
8. 20% of kids think their parents have no idea what they are doing online
How does social media impact on mental health?
There are several studies linking social media to anxiety and compulsive behaviour. A recent research study found that 45% of British adults indicated they feel worried or uncomfortable when they cannot access their email or social network sites (Anxiety UK, 2012). Anxiety is caused by fear, worry and a sense of being out of control. When you post images and comments on social media you are completely exposed and have no control over how others will respond or how this will affect you.
Young people now live in a generation that are constantly comparing themselves to others and in the world of teens it’s all about popularity. A recent study found that more than 50% of people will ‘photoshop’ a picture before posting on line. (Harris Interactive, 2014). When posting images, it’s about the amount of likes or comments they receive. Or lack of. Negative feedback and lack of likes can be very damaging for a young persons’ self-esteem. In the world of social media young people feel the pressure of keeping up with their friends, ensuring they respond to posts with likes or comments to avoid fall outs.
When living their lives online there is a constant need for reassurance and young people, particularly girls, are feeling the need to present themselves as ‘perfect’. Just posting a picture can cause anxiety. Some comments for example are; ‘Do I look ok in the picture?'; ‘Does my hair look ok?’; ‘Do I look fat?’. This will increase their anxiety of constantly worrying about what others think as well as keeping up appearances and fitting in. Sadly, young people are becoming so used to social media and its demands, they don’t even recognise the anxieties that it causes them.
There have also been studies linking social media to Depression. For example, Davila et al (2012) examined the social networking behaviours of 334 undergraduate students, and found that more negative and less positive interactions on social networking sites were associated with greater depressive symptoms. In my work with young people I can identify when a client’s mood is effected by the comparisons they are making to others. Often young people will comment that looking at others photos online makes them feel worthless and ugly. I also notice how their behaviours will change. For example, not meeting with friends as often or skipping activities they once enjoyed both of which will impact on their mental health.
Body dysmorphia is effected by social media. A study by Bryony Bamford (2015) found that high amounts of time spent on Facebook can lead to body image insecurity which can lead to depression. Another study by psychologist Dr Paula Durlofsky (2014) demonstrated a correlation between social media and depression because of low self-esteem. Young people were found to be critically comparing themselves to others, using others posts to measure the success or failures in their own lives.
Another cause of depression which I find particularly upsetting to work with, is on-line bullying. Studies have shown that Cyberbullying though social media sites is common and can cause profound psychological problems which can include depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, severe isolation, and tragically suicide (Hinduga, et al 2010). Online bullying is particularly upsetting when you see the direct impact it is having on a young person’s mental health but are powerless to control. Almost half of 11-16year old’s have experienced bullying on social media. (NSPCC, 2014)
There is also a link between sleep deprivation and social media. Young people are often up late at night responding to what’s going on though social media. They have developed a fear of missing out (FOMO) and worry about being criticised or bullied for not responding to friend’s posts or messages. With a phone continually in hand, an immediate response is expected which also causes an increase in anxiety.
The reality we face
Young people are becoming so addicted to social media and experience FOMO that they will do anything to find a way of communicating. Some parents I have spoken to have confiscated phones because of social media use but are then unaware that social media apps can be downloaded onto iPods and kindles that young people may own. Young people I have spoken to have admitted buying old phones or using old phones they find lying around the house without parent knowledge, so they can access social media when phones have been confiscated. They also report going to friend's houses to access social media and setting up new accounts that parents are unaware of.
Even when parents are keeping an eye on social media accounts young people are very clever at hiding what they don’t want their parents to see. Apps like Instagram and WhatsApp have the option to set up group chats and whilst these can be fun they can cause young people problems with bulling. An example I heard recently was group members ‘ganging up’ on a member of the group. This young person attempted to leave the group but the members brought the young person back in again so the bullying could continue.
As I mentioned earlier, the government is investing large amounts of money to improve access to mental health treatments for children and young people which is fantastic, however it feels little is being invested in the cause of the increasing number of young people suffering with their mental health. I personally feel that not enough is being done to educate parents of the danger of social media or protecting children and young people from the dangers that it can cause to their mental health by having access from a young age. Children and young people are accessing social media as young as 7 and roughly 70% of children own a phone by the time they are 11. Social media is here to stay so presently it is up to parents to protect child from the dangers of the on-line world.
Another concern is the number of new apps that are constantly emerging and sadly it seems developers are not interested in the impact it may have on mental health, just on how much money it will make them. I came across a ‘gossip’ app recently that came with a disclaimer noting that it was not intended for bullying only for fun, a clear indication that bullying is likely. Another danger is the spam that comes through these apps– indecent images and filters to other potential dangerous sites. Spam also influences purchasing decisions by targeting what young people are interested in – this is linked by what they are searching for.
The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of how social media can impact on young peoples’ mental health and to highlight that not enough is being done to get the message out there. Parents often comment that they find it hard not to give in to pressure from their children, so I would like to see more support to help parents protect young people from the potential dangers. Most social media apps come with a recommended age restriction which a lot of parents I have spoken to are unaware of. Children should be 13 to use Instagram and Snapchat and 16 to use WhatsApp. There are age restrictions on apps for a reason – children are not as emotionally resilient as adults and are simply not ready for the exposure of social media world. Through campaigning, I would also like parents to have the opportunity to hear more about the links between social media and mental health so they are able to make informed choices about social media use. Finally, as this epidemic unfolds, I would like to see further development of software and apps to help parents protect their children.
Start of the solution
ACT and All The Fish are collaborating to increase awareness of the effects of social media on mental health and campaigning for local and central government to take action to restrict access to certain apps until an appropriate age, as well as putting pressure on social media providers to be more socially responsible.
There is already plenty of software available that will 'lock down' apps or 'restrict the wifi', but they require a lot of painful setup and the children are more likely to find other ways to access social media as they feel their privacy is being invaded. Our innovation (ITmatters) aims to educate children on managing their social media and internet presence in order to protect them from harmful and damaging interactions. Our software can be used on any device and is designed to be fun and interesting. Crucially although the child will be aware their devices are being monitored, the software is hidden and private enough so that they are not inclined to change their behaviour. Parents, carers and teachers will only receive 'just enough information' when intervention or support may be necessary.
Anxiety UK (2012, July 9). Anxiety UK study finds technology can increase anxiety. Retrieved from http://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/2012/07/for-some-with-anxiety-technology- can increase-anxiety (accessed 5th September 2016)
Bamford B (2015) Social Media and Body image – what effect is it really having http://www.thelondoncentre.co.uk/author/bryony/ (accessed 5th September 2016)
Davila, J., Hershenberg, R., Feinstein, B. A., Gorman, K., Bhatia, V., & Starr, L. R. (2012).
Frequency and quality of social networking among young adults: Associations with
depressive symptoms, rumination, and co-rumination. Psychology of Popular Media
Culture, 1(2), 72–86 Harris Interactive (2014) http://renfrewcenter.com/news/afraid-be-your-selfie-survey-reveals-most-people-photoshop-their-images(accessed 5th September 2016)
Durlofsky, P (2014) Can too much social media cause depression. http://drpauladurlofsky.com/can-too-much-social-media-cause-depression (accessed 5th September 2016)
Hinduja S, Patchin JW. Bullying, Cyberbullying and Suicide. Arch Suicide Res. 2010:14(3) 206-221
Teen mental health (2016) teenmentalhealth.org accessed 4th September 2016
Young Minds Matter (2016) http://projects.huffingtonpost.co.uk/young-minds-matter/ (accessed 5th September 2016)
The statistics below were collected from various resources including: Social Media and Young Adults, Pew Internet & American Life Project, Global Insights Into Family Life Online, Norton/Symantec & Strategy One, Teen/Mom Internet Safety Survey, McAfee & Harris Interactive, Pew Research Center, FOSI, Cable in the Classroom 2011, Journal of Adolescent Health, National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA)-McAfee Online Safety Study, American Osteopathic Association, Social Media and Young Adults, Pew Internet, American Life Project and Grunwald Associates.
•88% of teens have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on a social networking site.
•The number of sexual assault cases related to social media sites has increased by 30%.
•12% of teens say they witnessed unpleasant behavior “frequently” on social networking sites.
•55% of parents of 12-year-olds said their child was on Facebook and 76% said they helped their child gain access.
•15% of teens say they were the target of online cruelty.
•41% of teens had a negative experience as a result of using a social networking site.
•22% of teens lost their friendship with someone due to actions on social media sites.
•13% had an experienced a problem with their parents because of social media sites.
•8% were involved in a physical fight with someone else because of something posted on a social networking site.
•25% of teens had experienced a face-to-face argument or confrontation as a result of posts on Facebook.
•62% of parents of teens ages 13-14 are “friends” with their child are Facebook.
•6% have gotten in trouble at school because of postings on a social networking site.
•29% of Internet sex crime relationships were initiated on a social networking site.
•In 26% of online sex crimes against minors, offenders disseminated information and/or pictures of the victim through the victim’s personal social networking site.
•67% of teenagers say they know how to hide what they do online from their parents.
•43% of teens say they would change their online behavior if they knew that
their parents were watching them.
•39% think their online activity is private from everyone, including parents.
•20% of kids think their parents have no idea what they are doing online.
•55% of teens have given out personal information to someone they don’t know,
including photos and physical descriptions.
•60% created profiles or personal sites.
•Approximately 20% of teens update their sites or profiles at least once a day.
•64% of teens upload photos to social media sites.
•42% of teens are creating characters, avatars, such as Meez, or anime to express themselves across their personal profiles.
•33% of all Internet-initiated sex crimes involved social networking sites.
•24% of social network users say they are not at all confident in their ability to use privacy settings.
•Half of all sex crimes against a minor involving a social networking site, the social networking site was used to initiate the relationship.
•81% of online 9-17year old’s say that they visited a social networking website within the past 3 months.
•71% of online 9-17year old’s visit these sites at least weekly.
•Among online 9-17year old’s – more time is spent on social networks than on TV.
•Cases of Internet sex crimes against children involving social networking sites were more likely to result in a face-to-face meeting. This was true of 81% of Internet-initiated crimes involving a social networking site.
•38% of Facebook users in the last year were under the age of 13.
•More than 25% of Facebook users last year were under the age of 10.
•Only 18% of parents with children under 10 on Facebook are actually “friends” with their child on the site.
•Only 10% of parents of children aged 10 and under had frank talks about appropriate online behavior and threats.
•Of the active adult users of Facebook, 66% reported they did not know privacy controls existed on Facebook and/or they did not know how to use the privacy controls.
•29% have been stalked or contacted by a stranger or someone they don’t know.
•24% have had private or embarrassing info made public without their permission.
•67% of teenagers say they know how to hide what they do online from their parents.
•43% of teens say they would change their online behavior if they knew that their parents were watching them.
•39% of tweens and teens think their online activity is private from everyone, including parents.
•20% of kids think their parents have no idea what they’re doing online.
•85% of parents with teenage children ages 13-17 report that their child has a social networking profile.
•22% of teenagers log on to their favorite social media site more than 10 times a day.
Kelly, Caroline. Therapeutic Counsellor. BA(Hons), Act Counselling. Post Graduate Certificate in Enhanced Evidence Based Interventions for Children and Young People. Wood, Shelley. Director, Every Cloud Ltd. BA(Hons)