The evidence about the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people makes for worrying reading. Surveys suggest that about one child in ten is currently experiencing a mental health difficulty, rising to one in four among young adults. Levels of self-harm are a cause for particular concern, as is the growing realisation that the provision of support for young people’s mental health is falling far below the level of need.
This growing concern about children’s mental health has led to a widespread narrative that the problem is also growing: that we face an ‘epidemic’ of mental ill health among young people. As a result, many have sought explanations about what has changed in recent years to put children at a greater risk of poor mental health. The emergence during that time of social media has inevitably led to concerns that the use of technology is a major driver of poor mental health.
Thee are many reasons to make this connection. And there is now some research evidence that that has found associations between heavy or ‘problematic’ social media use with depression, for example. Studies have identified a number of ways in which social media use can undermine a young person’s wellbeing. They include a risk of developing addictions to social media use, the impact of making negative comparisons with other people’s lives, and online bullying.
But the evidence about social media and mental health may not be so straightforwardly one-dimensional. We know, for example, that the are many risk factors for poor mental health among children and young people, including poverty, neglect, school stress, bullying (of all kinds) and poor physical health. There are stark inequalities in children and young people’s mental health that make it difficult to lay the blame for the problem at the door of social media. We may, in fact, be at risk of creating a moral panic over social media that distracts us from the wider range of risks facing young people’s wellbeing which require action across the board.
That notwithstanding, there are clearly issues relating to social media use that need to be addressed. We cannot turn back time or deny the centrality of social media interaction in young people’s lives. But we can ensure that social media companies put safeguards in place and keep reviewing the risks their users face. We can support schools and families to help children navigate social media in ways that protect their health. Indeed, we can make the most of social media to encourage quicker help seeking (a potential benefit that traditional means of communication with young people have failed to achieve). And we can ensure that research about social media use and mental health starts from the perspectives of young people themselves, working in partnership.
Supporting the wellbeing of children and young people now and in the future is all of our business, including social media companies. But to see social media as solely responsible for poor mental health or to try to turn back the clock is missing an opportunity to engage with young people in new and creative ways to make a difference.
Andy Bell is deputy chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health