The number of teenage suicides in England and Wales increased by 67% between 2010 and 2017. At the same time the number of US teens who experienced symptoms of depression rose 33%. Researchers have found that this rise is directly proportional to an increase in smart phone usage and thereby social media.
I became interested in psychology when trying to find the solution to my own issues as a teenager. Being a troubled teen is nothing new. What is worryingly ‘new’ is the impact that our world is having on this susceptible group. This scares, no terrifies me – I have two daughters, one about to enter her teenage years plus a nephew and niece knocking on the door of adolescence.
Taking social media specifically, how and why is it having such a massive impact? A simple framework to remind us how to protect our mental health is the 5 a day. Below I’ve explained how social media undermines each of these factors and written some brief suggestions for parents of teens (although the same applies to adults – for more click here).
Connecting with Others– is essential to our emotional well-being. You could say it’s as important as the air we breath is to our physical being. Without connection, we live continually in survival mode (i.e. stressed out). Our brain evolved to depend on others and to belong to a group.
Social media allows us to connect – to message, to re-connect with old friends, to make new ones, to share worries, but not at the level our brain requires. Take for example the neurotransmitter Oxytocin which plays a critical role in bonding with others, underlies trust and regulates social interaction. Oxytocin also acts as an ‘antidote to depressive feelings’. This is so important in teenagers that their brain actually increases the volume of receptors for Oxytocin. But social media doesn’t stimulate the release of Oxytocin in the way that face-to-face interaction does, hence leaving an immediate void.
Added to this adolescence provides the platform to develop emotional intelligence. Each interaction provides a tiny subconscious lesson which enables the brain to fine tune understanding through trial and error. Without this the brain just doesn’t learn. As a result, it becomes more difficult to connect with people in the real world. The knock-on effect of this that it limits a teens ability to communicate issues, worries and concerns which is essential to prevent anxieties spiralling out of control.
– Encourage them to invite their friends round to your house and to leave their phones in the kitchen.
– Socialise as a family, perhaps invite friends with similar age teens. Then encourage everyone to put their phones down including the adults.
Giving Back. Social media provides a barrier to giving back. While a teen may encourage another friend to ‘follow’ someone or make comments like ‘you are my bestie’ this doesn’t stimulate the bits of the brain that giving a hug or listening to a friend pouring out their heart does. Giving back has the most positive impact on the brain when it’s done in real life.
– Encourage your teen to think of ways that they can give back. It may be as simple as being kind to or helping a sibling with homework.
Learning and Curiosity. It’s easy to get lost for hours scrolling through Instagram images or a twitter feed but that doesn’t teach us much other than who said what to whom and what Kim Kardashian is wearing. Learning, being curious and digging deeper are just not encouraged by social media. It is by its very nature meant to be quick and surface level, not reflective and deep.
– Help your teen find the things that they love in ‘real life’ and encourage them to investigate (curiosity) opportunities to do those things, then help make that possible.
Being Mindful in brain terms means disengaging from the busy chatter in the emotional, reactive part of our brain. However social media actually stimulates the fast thinking bit of the brain having the opposite effect to being mindful. Without carrying out mindful activities (e.g. singing, colouring, walking outside) we cannot develop the ability of the more advanced areas of our brain to manage our emotions. This provides another mechanism by which anxiety and mental ill health can take hold.
– Help them to understand what being mindful means and explore the what works for them . For example, my eldest daughter likes colouring but cannot stand listening to the ‘mindfulness app’ where as my youngest wants to listen to ‘the man’ (i.e. Headspace) most bed times.
Physical activity is something else our physiology has evolved to thrive on. Being active rids our bodies and brains of harmful chemicals such as the stress hormone cortisol. It’s hard however to be active and use social media at the same time. Good in that getting active limits our phone use, bad in that more social media means more chemical toxins build up in the brain.
– Get them outside doing something physically active. Encourage them to try different things until they find something they love.
In short – social media is bad for mental health and particularly harmful to teenagers. The easiest antidote is to think through how our brain and body evolved to live and encourage anything that fits with that e.g. being outside, spending hours sitting and chatting to friends, exploring……I’d love to hear your thoughts.
There are many other exacerbating factors when it comes to social media, including but not limited to:
- negative images normalising behaviours such as anxiety, self-harm and suicide
- real life social norms being removed allowing people to be bullied and trolled
- the addictive nature of social media drawing away from ‘real life’
- the number of likes and followers becoming an obsessional measurement of who we are
My book Defining You which is about understanding yourself better (to improve both mental health and performance) via a range of psychological tools, is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.com, amazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.
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