Written by, Holly Banfield, Trainee Clinical Psychologist.
Social media use among young people has rocketed over the last decade. According to Ofcom (2015) the amount of time young people spend online has almost trebled within the last 10 years, and research from Childwise (2016) reveals that 7-16 year olds spend an average of three hours online a day, with this figure rising to almost five hours for young people aged 15-16.
With many social networking and instant messaging platforms available (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Whatsapp, Tumblr, YouTube), young people today have a wide range of choice when it comes to communicating and creating an online identity. Social media is often used as an extension of offline friendships, allowing young people to express themselves and communicate more freely outside of school hours. But what impact is this constant contact and on-going feedback having on young people’s mental health, and the way they view themselves? And more importantly, what can we do to support young people to develop a healthy, balanced sense of self?
Speaking from personal experience, the main reason I gave up social media was the constant comparisons it allowed me to make between mine and others’ lives. Seeing friends’ photos from travelling, holidays and adventures while I was sat at home having a ‘normal’ night in would be enough to dip my mood. This effect is much greater among young people, as their personalities are still developing, and they are typically more vulnerable to external pressures in the process of forming their own views and beliefs about themselves.
What’s more, social media encourages users to be selective in the information they share, resulting in others viewing only specific aspects or ‘snippets’ of their lives. Although this can be empowering to young people, the freedom to tailor the information they share comes at a cost. For example, the ‘selfie’ of a girl posing with her group of friends may have been taken and edited several times before being posted onto Instagram; and the Snapchat story a boy shared failed to take into account that he had actually spent several hours that day worrying about an upcoming exam. This kind of self-selecting information leads others to develop a distorted perception of reality, leading young people to compare themselves to an unrealistic ‘ideal’. This may then link to low self-esteem and an over reliance on social media as a way to seek reassurance and validation, for instance in the form of receiving ‘likes’, comments and ‘shares’. As a result, the cycle continues.
A further factor to add to the problem is cyberbullying, which is now more prevalent than ever. According to the anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label (2016), an estimated 5.4 million young people in the UK have experienced cyberbullying, with 1.2 million subjected to extreme cyberbullying on a daily basis. Further, young people today report being subjected to harmful and abusive comments by ‘keyboard warriors’ and ‘internet trolls’ who, protected by the distance and anonymity the internet serves, target individuals online knowing that the they are unable to physically fight back. This is a serious problem which only serves to exacerbate the risk of young people developing mental health issues.
How can we help?
Firstly, the main thing can do to help is to encourage young people to get in touch with who they are and their own unique qualities and attributes. What is it they are good at? What do they like about themselves? What do others like about them? Why? Maybe they could ask their parents, families and close friends about these qualities, while thinking of some examples of when they have illustrated these. The process of recognising the value of ourselves as individuals is known as self-affirmation (Steele, 1988), and this can have positive effects on our confidence and self-esteem. Exercises like these might also lead to a useful discussion where young people can begin to identify not only their own qualities, but also those of others, therefore developing their ability to reflect and build positive peer relationships.
Secondly, talking to parents about the impact of social media can be good a starting point in trying to limit the amount of time young people spend online. Introducing rules such as making time for family in the evenings, and ‘banning’ mobile phones at the dinner table may be necessary in extreme cases. As adults, modelling the importance of spending time with others and limiting the amount of time spent checking social media ourselves is paramount.
Thirdly, it may sound simple, but encouraging young people to get active, and get outside in the fresh air (when the weather is kind!) can be a great help. Sports and exercise are great way for young people to socialise while boosting confidence, self-esteem and releasing those all-important endorphins. Plus, the more time spent socialising is less time spent on social media.
Finally, the importance of being compassionate to ourselves should be driven home for young people. Self-compassion can be described as simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others (Germer, 2009; Neff, 2003), or treating yourself as you would treat a good friend (Neff, 2016). Validating young people’s feelings and reinforcing the message that ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ all of the time is also very important (however, parents should take it seriously if their child is persistently unhappy or anxious). Further, acknowledging the importance of difficult emotions has proven a successful message in recent media, as one of the key messages in the Disney Pixar film ‘Inside Out’ was that sadness is a key emotion in helping us to learn and make sense of our experiences. Reinforcing this message will help to combat the belief that we have to be having fun all of the time and may relieve the pressure young people feel to present themselves in a certain way on social media.
Overall, it is hoped that with our support, young people will start to challenge their perceptions of others on social media while starting to believe in their own unique qualities. This is hoped to reduce their susceptibility to developing mental health issues, while encouraging them to get in touch with who they really are.
Childwise. (2016). The monitor report 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.childwise.co.uk/reports.html
Ditch the Label. (2016). Annual bullying survey 2016: Bullying statistics in the UK. Retrieved from http://www.ditchthelabel.org/annual-bullying-survey-2016/
Germer, C. K. (2011). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. New York: Guildford Press.
Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–102.
Neff, K. D. (2016). Self-compassion: Treating yourself as you’d treat a good friend. Retrieved from http://self-compassion.org/self-compassion-treating-yourself-as-youd-treat-a-good-friend/
Ofcom. (2015). Children and parents: Media se and attitudes report 2015. Retrieved from http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/market-data-research/other/research-publications/childrens/children-parents-nov-15/
Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.). Advances in experimental social psychology. (Vol 21, pp. 261-302). San Diego: Academic Press.