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Is social media harming your children’s mental health?

Ever wondered what sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram are doing to your kids’ wellbeing? Do they make bullying more likely, or could all those hours spent staring at screens actually be a force for good?

Social media is now so ubiquitous that it’s hard to remember a time when it didn’t exist. But this momentous shift in how we see and share information has happened at breakneck pace.

Instagram, which now has 700 million monthly users, was founded in 2010. Twitter, home to 328 million users, only started in 2006. Even Facebook – the elder statesman, with two billion active users – is less than 15 years old, having been set up in 2004.

In just over a decade, these sites have become central to many of our – and our children’s – lives. A recent government survey found that 96% of 16-24-year olds now use social media. But how worried should we be about the impact this could have on our children’s mental health? 

Through research, we can smash through the social media myths and find out when there really is cause for concern – or celebration.   

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Funded by MQ, scientist Jean-Baptiste Pingault is studying many parents’ biggest fear about social media – bullying. 

“For young people today, social media is there all time and is hard to escape. This means that the risk of bullying can be constant. And traditional ‘safe spaces’ away from bullies are hard to find.”

So what is Jean-Baptiste hoping to find out about cyberbullying, and what does he want to change? By looking at the results of three existing long-term studies, his main aim is to understand whether there’s a direct link between bullying and mental illness in young people. 

Part of the study involves looking at data for twins. If one twin is bullied and the other isn’t, is the bulled twin more likely to develop a mental illness? 

And he is also looking at what factors – from physical health to economic background – mean young people are most likely to be bullied, both in person and online.

Ultimately, Jean-Baptiste wants to improve the support available to prevent bullying happening in the first place. If he does find a link between being bullied and mental illness – and his early results have shown just that – we could move closer to being able to prevent people becoming unwell, too.”

Studies have suggested there might also be a link between social media and depression – but further research is needed to put that theory to the test.

Join the movement

Add your voice to demand progress for young people facing mental illness

In the world of social media, where it’s easy to present a fantasy version of yourself, it’s equally easy to feel inadequate. The question is whether those feelings of inadequacy can have a lasting effect on mental health – and the only way to truly answer that question is through dedicated research.

As part of our work to both predict and prevent mental illness, we recently launched a major £1m research study to understand the causes of depression.

Through this work, we’ll look far beyond social media, with scientists around the globe examining a huge range of potential factors and using everything from brain scans to brain cells created in labs.

Of course, social media definitely isn’t all bad – there’s plenty of evidence that it can benefit mental health too.

Professor John Powell, an MQ-funded researcher at Oxford University, has found that social media can offer vital support to those with chronic illnesses.

“It can connect people who have similar health problems and challenges, providing support and making them feel less alone", he says, “knowing that other people are experiencing the same thing as you – and that they can recover - can be  very valuable.” Just as social media can isolate young people, in other words, it also has the power to make them feel more connected.

Similarly, social media can even play a part in mental health treatment. At the University of Cambridge, Becky Inster is developing a radical new approach to help people recover from mental illness, by monitoring their social media activity identifying what causes them to feel better and using that as a basis for their recovery plan. Looking specifically at the potential with Facebook, Becky has written that researchers should be focused on how best to use this technology to promote positive change.  

If anything is certain at this stage, it’s that social media can have a profound impact on the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us. But we are only beginning to understand what that impact really is.

At MQ, we are building a movement to transform our knowledge of mental health through research, and we’re focusing much of our work on young people. After years of underinvestment, there’s a huge amount to do.

So if you share our determination to sort fact from fiction, and want to help create a world where everything from social media to schizophrenia is no longer shrouded in mystery, we’d love you to join us.

Together, we can separate the mental health myths from the truths we urgently need to know.  

Last updated: 17 October 2017

Join the movement

Add your voice to demand progress for young people facing mental illness

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Thanks for adding your voice to demand progress for young people facing mental illness. We'll be in touch with more ways you can get involved.

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