World Mental Health Day on Wednesday 10th October is an annual global awareness raising day. This year’s theme is #Handsup4HealthyMinds, which focuses on young people’s mental health in a changing world. In the last ten years we have seen social media and technology become integral to our world. However, what are the long-term effects of social media on young people today? Half of all worldwide mental illness starts by age 14. In the UK, 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental health issue. This is the tip of the iceberg.

Social media usage for adults and young people alike has been growing year-on-year. It is thought 42 million people in the UK use social media on a daily basis, this equates to c. 62% of the population. Unsurprisingly 16-24 year olds access social media most regularly. Clearly, there are many benefits of interacting online, such as keeping in contact with family across the globe, connecting with people who share your interests and interactive learning. It also supports people who may not be able to leave the house or who feel isolated.

However, on the negative side social media can impact adversely on self-esteem, confidence and perfectionist tendencies. Adolescence has always been a fragile time where there is rapid physical development and emotional changes fueled by hormones. To then place social media on top of this can add another dimension of pressure on the journey to adulthood. It is easy to look at other peoples’ happy photos and start comparing their lives to ours. Most people present the best parts of their lives, so there is a differential between reality and their idealised moments we see when scrolling through feeds. This leads to us to feel like we can’t measure up, that we are clearly not doing something right if everyone else is so enchanted with life.

Psychologists have begun to look at the effects of social media on the mental wellbeing of young people. There are consistent findings to show that heavy use (15+hours a week) of social media is associated with poorer mental health. A recent study from the University of Pittsburgh of young adults suggested that heavy social media users were three times more likely to be depressed than occasional users.

You may notice the following if someone is overusing social media and starts to become low.

  • Increased changes in emotions, for example more tearful, panicky, exhausted, unsure of themselves
  • They may be absent from social gatherings unexpectedly or socially withdrawn
  • Increased irritability and snappiness over small details
  • Inability to deal with usual school/college work or assignments
  • Increased discussion about their physical appearance, going on diets/fitness programmes regularly
  • Indecisiveness or unusual decision-making
  • Seeking constant approval from friends both face-to-face and online
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Poor sleep quality and quantity

This list is not a diagnostic checklist, but more to gain an insight into what may be happening with overuse of social media. It is essential to talk to the young person in question and listen to what is going on. You may not receive an answer straight away, but keep revisiting the subject. MHFA’s toolkit provides a useful guide. It is unlikely that they will give up social media all together. Nevertheless, there are ways in which they could identify their triggers and choices they want to make. Some strategies and tools that could be employed are listed below.

  • Setting aside an hour a day to use social media and sticking to it
  • Deleting apps from a phone and using desktop versions only
  • Follow wellbeing tips and life-affirming content, to potentially reduce comparison and perfectionist thinking
  • Join positive groups online
  • Be honest about who they feel they are in competition with and why this is the case
  • Mute or block certain people for a period of time
  • Switching their phone off one hour prior to bedtime to reduce blue light interference and increase sleep quality
  • Read a book for just 6 minutes a day to reduce stress and overwhelm
  • Start and keep a gratitude diary, list five things a day they are grateful for
  • Speaking to someone about how they feel on a regular basis

Social media isn’t going to suddenly disappear, but by being aware of the potential negative effects it may have can make it more manageable. Utilising the helpful elements and minimising the harmful elements will benefit everyone’s mental health. Let’s all put our #HandsUp4HealthyMinds this World Mental Health Day.

What’s helped you to manage your social media usage? Do let us know in the comments box below.

I will also be hosting a Twitter chat on the same subject on 10 October 2018 at 17.00 BST, with the hashtag #HandsUp4WMHD18 (World Mental Health Day 2018). Keep an eye on @diversemindsuk for more information.

If you are concerned about your social media usage, you can book a free 30 minute call with me to discuss strategies.