I like to start my day over a cup of tea and a scan of the newspapers. One recurring theme in the news is the various effects of social media on young people ― and it’s easy to see why. A generation of young people have grown up with the internet. Use of social media is a part of everyday life and with that comes new forms of social interaction. For some people social media is hugely beneficial. Perhaps because of some physical condition that makes normal social interaction more difficult, it’s now incredibly easy to make friends across the globe.
But, as we all know, there is a dark side to the anonymity and accessibility that the internet provides.
During my read of the papers (online of course) I came across an article from a young Instagram fitness guru who explained the pressures she was under portraying a daily diet of happiness. She said it had made her depressed. I then followed another link as to why Instagram, specifically, is said to make people anxious. According to the article, which reflects the views of psychologist Jaimie Bloch, time spent on Instagram increases vulnerability to anxiety in a variety of ways. Fear of missing out brings with it an increase in insecurities, which further increases the already negative views young people may have about themselves. Typically these involve fears of being uncool, unpopular or unlikeable.
It’s a sobering thought to realize that teen stress now rivals that of adults. These findings, reported by the American Psychological Association, reveal a picture where stress levels regularly exceed those considered to be healthy. This particular article stops short of attributing specific causes, so we are left to assume the likely suspects are school and possibly home pressures. These are fairly vague terms, but while school pressures may simply refer to study issues it isn’t difficult to imagine how bullying plays an equally important role.
Do girls come off worse?
In the United Kingdom, there has been a sharp increase in the number of girls aged 17 or under admitted to hospital due to self-harm. In fact, the statistics, reported in the British Medical Journal , reveal a 68 percent increase over the past decade, compared with a much lower 26 percent increase in boys. This corresponds to increased levels of body dissatisfaction, insecurities and low self-esteem. What’s happening and why?
According to recent research as much as one in four girls is depressed at age 14. This echoes a number of other reports showing particular concern over the wellbeing of girls and young women. A very useful article on the topic has been written by Denis Campbell, health editor of The Guardian newspaper.
Comparing ourselves with others is standard human behavior, but frequent social comparisons can lead us to unhealthy places. Higher levels of envy, guilt, regret, defensiveness and blame are among the more negative of these. An interesting feature of social media seems to be that comparing ourselves with others on Facebook is more likely to lead to feelings of depression than social comparisons offline. These are the findings by David Baker and Perez Algorta, who compared studies from 14 different countries. Rumination and over-thinking results from high levels of contact, they say.
Keeping some perspective
According to 2016 data from comScore the highest percentage of social media users are female (just shy of 60 percent). According to Business Insider, women dominate social media sites with the exception of Twitter and LinkedIn. With these stats in mind it’s perhaps less surprising to find that a higher proportion of girls and young women appear more exposed to its negative effects.
However, we mustn’t jump the gun. Yes, there are indications that social media can have a negative effect upon mental health, but the association, or associations, are not fully understood. It is also far easier to find personal stories and media speculation as to the negative side of social media, rather than the positive. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that social media can be a force for good, and until we know more about the complex ways we engage with social media it’s perhaps best that we continue to reserve judgment.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.