Don’t listen to the moral panic, social media is good for young people’s mental health

Social media can allow young people to express themselves and build communities. Policing it will only make teenagers withdraw further 

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The Independent Online

This week has seen the publication of an important report #StatusOfMind. 1,479 youngsters between the ages of 14 and 24 were asked their opinions of a number of social media platforms (SMPs) such as YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. The ranking of SMPs has produced a wealth of headlines outing Instagram as the worst culprit and cementing an association between the current mental health epidemic and SMPs in the public imagination.

Yet we must question whether increased mental health surveillance on SMPs is really the answer. Attempts to help so far have been problematic. Consider the Samaritans Radar Twitter App, which gives Twitter users access to their followers twitter activities, checking them for suicidal messages, and then alerting the user to their followers concerns. Within weeks, Radar was binned after mass protest, not least from the mental health community. Twitter followers are not ‘friends’ as many adults presumed, and the tool had the potential to be used to identity vulnerable adults for abuse and cyberbullying.

Social media might make you unhappy...but it's worth it

Instagram’s efforts to police certain sites in 2012 was similarly unsuccessful. Instagram’s attempt to ban search terms such as ‘thigh gap’ and ‘thininspiration’ did not stop youngsters searching for them. They simply came up with lexical variants, with “some communities disproportionally increasing in size” by 15-30 per cent as ‘thighgap’ became ‘thyghgapp’ and ‘pro-ana’ became ‘pro-anaaaa’, and so on.

There are also apps which can be used to warn Instagram users that it is important to log off sometimes. In support of this, #StatusOfMind reports that social media can be as addictive as cigarettes and alcohol. Yet the evidence for internet usage as a specific addiction is dubious, a reason why it was left out of the latest update of the world’s leading diagnostic bible.

No social media platform is intrinsically bad. Rather it is how we encourage young people to use them. There are those with mental health problems who have continuously located SM as beneficial. The #StatusOfMind survey shows us that all the SMPs boost community building, self-expression and self-identity as rated by young adults, all variables that mental health professionals connect with good mental health. Policing this through mental health surveillance may shut down the freedom to speak with potentially damaging effects for those we should be most concerned about. For feeling watched is one reason people shut off from real life encounters when mental health problems from anxiety to psychosis begin to bubble up.

The older SMPs such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook may score better for mental health as measured by the #StatusOfMind survey because communities have learnt to police themselves, with Vloggers frequently now decrying their own public image, and speaking about their own suffering. This progress over time from image to reality reflects a key developmental task from adolescence to adulthood. Interference from experts under the sway of the new moral panic about youngster’s mental health may hinder this progression, may regulate precisely that which heals.

Jay Watts is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist