The term “mental health” is defined as a state of mental wellbeing which allows an individual to help cope with the stressors of life and work well and contribute to their community. Adolescence refers to a significant period of psychological, biological, and social change for young people. Recent research into social media has highlighted profound negative effects which can affect adolescents' wellbeing.
My name is Subeyda and I am currently an undergraduate Psychology student at the University of Westminster. This summer I was given an incredible opportunity to work on a project with Inspire the Mind. The King’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship (KURF) scheme allows undergraduate students to participate in academic research with leading academics to help them learn and build on their research skills. I particularly chose this opportunity to work alongside Inspire the Mind as I am incredibly passionate about mental health and wellbeing and how we continuously work to promote mental health education.
This project specifically focused on how young people engage with mental health literature and ways in which we can help increase engagement with young people.
I will be releasing a series of joint blogs which aim to research how young people engage with mental health literature, and the ways in which we can help engage young people with mental health.
This blog will focus on the use of social media and both the positive and negative effects it may have on adolescents. This blog will also look to explore how social media can be used as a positive tool to increase wellbeing and promote awareness about mental health.
Social Media and negative impact on Mental health
The negative side of social media on young people is spoken about quite widely. So, before I dive into how we can transform social media into a positive tool for young people we must acknowledge and understand the negative impact social media can have on adolescents. This topic has been discussed extensively on Inspire the Mind, for example here, here and here, including most recently in a piece on the new platform, BeReal, by the Inspire the Mind Editor in Chief. You can also listen to our recent At the Back of Your Mind podcast on TikTok, here:
Recent research studies into the negative impacts of social media have shown to decrease life satisfaction in young adolescents. This research study found that adolescents who had higher social media use reported lower life satisfaction.
In addition, research has shown an increased risk of developing mental health problems such as depression or self-harm. Social media has been linked to young adolescents developing depressive symptoms.
A recent 2018 study highlighted 14- to 17-year-olds who use social media on average 7 hours per day are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression and to be treated by a mental health professional. However, social media does not necessarily determine depressive symptoms; rather it is also possible that greater depressive symptoms predict greater social media use over time.
Social Media and Social Comparison
Another way social media can affect adolescents’ mental health is through social comparison. The social comparison theory was proposed in 1954 by Leon Festinger which believed individuals have an innate drive to evaluate themselves. As teenagers begin to use social media by observing their peers, this leads to constant comparisons which may damage their self-esteem and body image. A recent report researching the effect of social media on teenagers found 26% of teens say social media sites make them feel worse about their life.
Social media has been seen to increase the impact of social comparison significantly, and social comparison via social media has been linked to depressive symptoms among adolescents.
But, despite the negative side of social media, there are two sides to the story: so let’s begin to focus on the good that social media can bring to contribute to the wellbeing of adolescents.
Social Media and Friendships
A recent research report found that approximately 81% of adolescents said social media helps them feel more connected to what is happening in their own lives. In addition, two-thirds said social media platforms help them feel they have people which will support them through difficult times.
Social Media can promote opportunities for individuals to interact and connect with one another, which can help support their wellbeing as they can provide support to one another.
Social Media and Mental Health Resources
But as well as creating and facilitating these peer-to-peer relationships, social media can be a great tool for information sharing. Yes, social media can help promote awareness of online mental health resources, to help support individuals going through a difficult time and to help promote wellbeing.
Mental health organisations have moved forward towards providing support through social media for users who may be suffering from mental health issues. This helps bring individuals from all areas of life and connect them all through their own personal experiences. A recent study has shown individuals who suffer from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia used social media as a way of connecting with others and reducing feelings of loneliness.
Mental health organisations can also offer support resources and inspire adolescents to seek further support. Social media also offers a platform for connection, allowing teens to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance.
Furthermore, young people have now been offered online therapies by licensed clinical professionals via online platforms, for example this one. This shows the positive impact of social media as clinical professionals may have not been able to reach young people for mental health treatment.
To conclude, yes social media has harmful psychological effects on adolescents’ mental health, however, it may also provide young people with the tools and knowledge to promote wellbeing and build meaningful new connections.
However, be cautious, as misinformation may be shared on social media, thus it is important to ensure that the information you are reading is provided by the right sources, for example from mental health organisations — or by academic-led blogs like Inspire the Mind!