Is social media damaging the mental health of young people? It’s important to look behind the headlines.
There is no doubt that today social media is seen by adults as representing a major threat to young people. There is much debate in the press and in public about the so-called “evils” of the digital world, and the Government has tasked medical experts with drawing up advice on the maximum amount of time young people should spend on social media. Parents and professionals worry about the time spent online, about the content that is seen by teenagers, and about the possible temptations that abound in the online world. Newspaper headlines such as ‘Social media fuels rise in self-harm’ (Evening Standard), and ‘Girls unhappy, stressed and addicted to web’ (The Times) are commonplace.
The striking thing is that this anxiety is not experienced in the same way by young people themselves. By and large they are aware of the risks in the online world, and believe that they are able to manage them. In my work with young people I ask them whether they see themselves as experiencing stress. They agree that the teenage years are a time of high stress, but not because of social media. The things they identify as stressful are tests, exams and pressure from school. They also talk about parental expectations, and sometimes pressure from friends. The digital world comes low down in their list of things that create stress and anxiety.