The effects of social media on young people's mental health is a subject I'm really passionate about. Working in the health and wellness industry, I see how heavily social media is used to share highlights, achievements and picture-perfect snaps of food and gym bodies. I go to press launches and see a sea of phones recording a speech; I go to fitness events, and halfway through the workout people grab their phones to show Instagram that they are there. Where is the point of distinction between social media and real life? I believe the line has blurred beyond recognition, and it's a worrying thought for the younger generations who are growing up with a phone in hand.
10 years ago when I was at school, things were totally different. I grew up in a relatively social media free age. Although having a phone was seen as 'cool' at school, generally speaking it was used for texting, playing Snake and sending polyphonic ringtones to each other via Bluetooth.
If you're a teenager in the digital age we now live in, chances are you're on Snapchat, Instagram and possibly Facebook and Twitter too (although the latter two aren't as popular amongst youngsters as they used to be). This worries me, because image-focused networking sites encourage comparison, worries about body image, and validation through 'likes' from peers.
Whilst peer validation is nothing new, and can indeed be healthy for maturing teens, the effects of this need for virtual validation and online popularity can stint other areas of development, such as social skills, self-awareness and identity.
A recent survey by the Royal Society for Public Health, #StatusofMind ranked Instagram as the worst social networking site in terms of its impact on young people's mental health. The survey of 1,479 young people aged 14-24 asked respondents to score each social media platform on issues such as anxiety, loneliness and community building.
Youtube surprisingly came out with the most positive rating, with Twitter coming next, and Facebook and Snapchat third and fourth respectively.
This is disturbing in many ways: the amount of time young people spend scrolling through pictures, comparing themselves to others, seeking validation in likes and followers, is being shown to have a negative impact on their mental health.
The RSPH and the Young Health Movement are calling for an introduction of a pop-up 'heavy usage' warning on social media, as well as the power for social media platforms to identify users who could be suffering from mental health problems and discreetly signposting support.
Not only can Instagram be linked to an increase in anxiety, low self-esteem and issues with body image, but a recent study by Nutritionist and Scientist Pixie Turner found that Instagram usage is linked to orthorexia. Although not an officially recognised term, the symptoms and side effects of orthorexia are very real. It can best be described as an obsession with eating healthily and not doing anything to sabotage a healthy lifestyle. The study suggests that the more time people who follow food accounts spend on Instagram, the more likely they are to show symptoms of orthorexia.
This research is startling when 90% of young people aged 16-34 spend time on social media. It shows that Instagram can directly affect the mental health of users who spend an hour or more per day scrolling their feed.
The message? It seems pretty loud and clear to me: reduce usage of Instagram to decrease anxiety, low self-esteem and other mental health issues. Whilst Instagram is not the only cause of mental health problems for young people, more and more research is emerging to suggest it certainly contributes.
If you feel like Instagram is negatively impacting your mental health, try to spend less time online. A digital detox may sound extreme, but often spending just a few days away from social media can have profound benefits for mental health (and productivity!).