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Are social media good for young people’s mental health?

A generation has now grown up with the internet a part of everyday life but, as yet, we still don’t know enough about how platforms such as Facebook and Instagram affect mental health. With cyberbullying on the increase, the need to find out is pressing.

In April 2016, after years of relentless bullying in school and on social media, 17-year-old Felix Alexander killed himself. After his death, his mother Lucy wrote that the bullying “began with unkindness and social isolation and over the years with the advent of social media it became cruel and overwhelming”.

Tragically, Felix’s experience is all too common: according to Childline, 38% of children and teens experience bullying online, while one survey found that Google searches for “cyberbullying” surge at the start of the school year.

Jean-Baptiste Pingault, lecturer in developmental psychopathology at University College London, says that cyberbullying has certain distinctive features: “With classical bullying, you have safe spaces [places where the bullies can’t go, such as home] but with cyberbullying, technology is often on all the time, so you are constantly exposed to the risk.” He notes, too, that cyberbullying makes it possible to be “bullied by people you barely know”. Much of Felix’s abuse on social media was from people who had never met him. 

Funded by mental health charity MQ, Pingault is now about to start a large-scale project analysing data from three longitudinal studies to assess the long-term impact of both traditional bullying and cyberbullying, with the aim of identifying risk factors and creating an opportunity for early intervention.

Social media has changed all our lives. Facebook now has 1.8 billion active users – a quarter of the world’s population. But it has a particular impact on the generation of young people who have grown up with the internet, and for whom sites such as Facebook and Instagram are a part of everyday life. The ability to write something hurtful without seeing the other person’s reaction means that social media can very quickly become a hostile place. 

Its negative effects can extend beyond bullying. David Baker, a trainee clinical psychologist at Lancaster University, analysed 30 studies about the relationship between Facebook and mental health. He found that people who compared themselves to others online were more likely to feel depressed, as were people who ruminated on what they’d seen. “If you spend a lot of time thinking about what you’ve seen while you’re online, that might be more likely to lead to depression.” But although there are indications that social media can have a negative effect on mental health, we don’t fully understand the link. Pingault’s research may offer a clearer view – part of his study will compare identical twins, one of whom has been bullied online, while the other hasn’t. If bullying has an impact, he says, the bullied twin will be more likely to have long-term mental health problems than the other twin. 

Although evidence is emerging of the impact of bullying on mental health, there is another side. Prof John Powell, a public health researcher at Oxford University, has carried out research into the support social media can offer to people with chronic illnesses. It can, he says, “help people who are socially isolated connect with other people or people with a rare condition. Social media is invaluable for people with health conditions to know that they’re not alone, that there are other people who have gone through this and got better. 

Ashleigh Ponder, 17, would agree. Five years ago, she developed anorexia, but after sharing her thoughts online, she found support by reading the posts of the anorexia recovery community on Instagram. She started to create her own, initially private posts, with pictures of what she was eating every day.

“Slowly I built up the courage to make it public so other recovery accounts could follow me and it grew from there,” she says. “I only had a very few followers to begin with, and had a very personal connection with them. They encouraged me to eat a little bit more every day.” Many were adults who had recovered from their eating disorders. “It was a mutual support system,” says Ashleigh. “We all wanted to see everyone get better.” Now with 23,000 Instagram followers, Ashleigh’s posts reflect her commitment to eating a balanced diet, but not an extreme one, and she takes care not to post anything that might be harmful to others.

Becky Inkster, senior manager for the neuroscience in psychiatry network at Cambridge University, has developed a radically new approach to identifying young people at risk of mental health problems, with the aim of intervening to help them earlier. She and her team, who have been following a cohort of young adolescents since 2002, will look at how young people’s use of social media changes when they are recovering from a mental health problem. With their consent, Inkster is analysing their Facebook updates, their comments and their “likes”, information that can be compared with other data, such as functional MRI brain scans.

Facebook posts, she says, offer “a rich form of information”, because it records people’s day-to-day thoughts and feelings. Inkster says she plans to examine “what’s changing in young people’s online social world when they’re improving, so we can start to map their road to recovery using this really rich set of information. We can find out if there were changes in music that they enjoyed or changes in conversations with new friendship networks – perhaps they closed off some conversations or were able to turn away from negative language. 

While studies are taking place to analyse what impact social media might have on mental health, to protect young people at risk, researchers such as Powell and Inkster may help us harness another side to social media – its potential for good. As Ashleigh says of Instagram: “It’s a place where you can connect to other people who know what you’re going through … it can be a brilliant way of sharing a journey of how you overcome your issues.”

Source: The Guardian, 2017 

Last updated: 3 August 2017

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