Young people have been conditioned to be consumed by the notion of social media. It’s an integral part of being young in the modern age. You’re judged by what your ‘Insta-story’ looks like or how many Twitter followers you have. Your profile picture is the key definer of your character and social status. Technological advances have made it easier for us all to be in contact with each other, but it’s also increased the competitive nature of socialising to an almost uncontrollable level. Are we telling everyone just how amazing our lives are? Do our friends comment enough on our pictures? Why hasn’t someone liked my status? The questions are endless, and the spiral is incredibly dangerous for the collective mental health of young people. On Thursday 7th February 2019, Twitter is taken over by a hashtag that works to show how social media can support mental health causes: #TimeToTalk. Led by the mental health organisation, Time to Change; millions of tweets are sent into the Twitter-verse encouraging people to have conversations about mental health.
Mental health in young people is becoming more of an issue with every news cycle. It seems on almost a weekly basis we’re hearing more stories about how anxiety is on the rise in young people, or teen suicide rates are increasing. Modern life seems to bring a world of stresses and pressures with it for the younger generations. Social isolation becomes so much more likely for a child or teen as they don’t just have to be accepted in person when at school, but now there is another level of exclusion possible: social media isolation. Young people can be made to feel out of place, unaccepted and alone if their activity on social media doesn’t fit into a particular box. But who set’s these boxes? Are they even possible? Why should our children be consumed with worry about an unattainable goal? There will always be someone who has a profile picture with one more like than you, who’s tweet is funnier than yours or whose Instagram picture has a better filter: they are all going through the same internal struggles though.
While the pressures of social media can affect people of all ages, young people are most susceptible to the psychological manipulation it’s capable of. Their age bracket are the ones who have been brought up with the networking platforms as a natural part of life. A recent survey showed that most young people in Northern Ireland feel like social media creates an “overwhelming pressure” to succeed. Teenagers and young adults are being manipulated by digital personas to uphold an unsustainable online profile. They need to be seen to be succeeding.
This is where campaigns like #TimeToTalk are important: they challenge the dependency we have on social media, while also utilising it to get a positive message across. We need to showcase how these platforms can bring us together, instead of dividing us. More importantly, #TimeToTalk this year is about “bringing together the right ingredients” to talk about mental health. For many, that might be putting away social media. So, if #TimeToTalk and similar hashtags can encourage vulnerable young people to understand that mental health conversations can happen irl (in real life), it might start to lessen the strength networking platforms have.
Exploiting the communicative nature of social media could actually pave the way for a positive change within society, where we learn to use networking platforms for good. Sarah Millican’s Christmas campaign (#JoinIn) shows us how Twitter can help you connect with people to fight loneliness and find global friends. Instagram is being taught a lesson in body positivity and self-love by Jameela Jamil’s #IWeigh account. These examples show us the potential of social media; if only we could harness these successes and apply them more consistently to every day life. Then young people could find comfort in social media instead of feeling under threat. Mental health should be nurtured across every communication platform we have; whether it’s websites, social media, schools, government, television… Globally we need to present a united front. Only then will we truly be able to protect our young people.
Social media is by no means the principal cause of mental health issues in young people (or anyone for that matter). Poor mental health is a fragile, individual issue which will be triggered by a whole range of factors; all specific to the person working through it. However, it’s undeniable that social media has a role in the increasing anxiety, stress and depression felt by the generation who use it on such a regular basis. Therefore, a case can be made for more strict regulations about the content shared on these platforms or the recommended time spent per day or week. After all, if we have guidelines for TV a day in order to protect our literacy skills and brain development; why not instigate the same for social media to safeguard our mental health? Above all, we should ensure that social media can become a place of positivity and encouragement; where young people who are feeling the pressures of modern life can find support, instead of more reasons to feel troubled. It’s #TimeToTalk about mental health. It’s #TimeToTalk about the impact of social media. It’s #TimeToTalk about how we could be doing better.
Youth mental health is an important issue to understand for any practitioner working with children and young people, as it can be brought about by many different situations and can manifest in numerous ways. To develop your practice, make sure to check out our resources page for helpful tools, guides and booklets on the subject. Here are just a few suggestions to get you started: