Parents are twice as worried about their teenagers getting addicted to social media as drugs. This comes as over a third of UK teenagers are classed as ‘extreme internet users’ and the NHS opens an internet addiction clinic to help tackle rising incidences of mental health disorders among young people.
These statistics paint a pretty bleak picture of young people trying to cope with growing up online. Social media is often seen as the nemesis as various studies have demonstrated the link between rising mental health issues and social media, including our own research which found that one in seven members of Generation Z (born after 1997) say social media has negatively impacted their mental health.
This comes as little surprise to those of us who use social media; even adults must actively work to find a balance between the gains and the unpleasantness to avoid feeling overwhelmed by these platforms. For children and adolescents trying to find their way through the world in changing bodies and minds, social media is inevitably going to be harder to handle.
That said, we can’t un-invent social media nor remove it from the lives of the young. What we can do instead is to demonstrate the potential positives of using these platforms and highlight some of the ways in which social media can be a force for good.
And there is evidence that social media platforms can have a positive impact. A 2015 study found that people who used the Facebook platform primarily to connect with other people didn’t have a negative experience. The conclusion was that “Facebook could be a good resource and have positive effects on wellbeing”.
In the Children’s Commissioner report into ‘Life in Likes’, there was a satisfying list of benefits young people were gleaning from their social media use, including being able to cheer themselves up, calm themselves down, be creative and play games, keep in touch with friends and family, and access information on all their interests.
Crucially for those moving through adolescence, social media is a place to find and connect with likeminded, disparate people. Teenagers can locate a community and often receive reassurance or support from connecting with people like them online, often through sites like Twitter. Social media platforms can also give young people power and a place to be heard – the March for our Lives rallies across the US and the massive worldwide support from young people were certainly facilitated by savvy use of social media.
Schools are all too aware of the negative impact of social media in their classrooms, but hopefully more can follow the example of those educational institutions already exploring the use of these ubiquitous platforms in a productive way. A new curriculum on online safety will also help change some of the rhetoric in schools, as the Government plans to roll out this new compulsory subject from September 2020 to help young people know how to use the internet ‘respectfully and safely’.
Technology companies are also starting to take their own steps to support and protect young people online. For example, Facebook has been using AI tools to scan and spot posts that suggest patterns of suicidal thoughts since 2017, while various platforms are making more efforts to signpost support organisations and services. There is also ongoing exploration into how AI can be applied to the personal data being shared to help those suffering with their mental health, while digital tools could be created to help people manage their own emotional well-being.
Fundamentally, social media is neither bad nor good. What matters is how we use it and talk about it, and the ways in which we integrate it into our lives. Helping our youngsters to better understand social media will help them take control of their use and channel the benefits while minimising the strains. We also need to make sure young people know when and where to ask for help so they can better keep themselves safe online (more advice is available from the UK Safer Internet Centre).
Every new generation faces difficulties as they grow up in a world that will have changed irrevocably since their parents and teachers were young. Social media might be the current challenge, but we mustn’t let it be insurmountable. Nor should we despair at a generation of young people finding their way with it. In many ways, the kids of today are more savvy and sensible than we give them credit for. Let’s empower them to make the right choices and reduce the demonisation of a tech tool that has changed all our lives forever because, for better or worse, it’s here to stay.