The year 2009 was arguably something of a watershed. Perhaps in a couple of centuries’ time, historians will say it marked the beginning of a new era: the digital age. However, a new era does not necessarily mean progress. Time will tell whether social media and digital technology generally is on the whole a positive force for society and humankind. At the moment, the forecast is not looking good. Depression and suicide rates among teenagers have increased exponentially over the 2010s, and the correlation with the growth of social media use is painfully clear.
A Teen Mental Health Crisis
We are currently facing a major mental health crisis among teenagers. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the number of teenage suicides in England and Wales increased by 67 per cent between 2010 and 2017. A study by University College London and the University of Liverpool analysed data from two large cohorts of UK millennials born a decade apart (members of the first cohort were born in 1990-1, the from the other 2000-1). The researchers found that the rate of depression for the younger group was 15%, compared to 9% for the older cohort.
It is a similar story in the U.S. A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression among kids ages 14 to 17 increased by more than 60%, and suicide rates have almost doubled.
What is the link between social media use and poor mental health?
Nearly 90% of young people from countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) are social media users according to data from 2019. The rise of social media use began in 2009 and usage has been increasing exponentially since then.
Alongside the correlational research, in recent years there have also been studies published which identify a causal connection between social media and worse mental health. A scientific causal link was established for the first time in 2018 by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, who carried out a study whereby 143 undergraduates were randomly assigned to either limit Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat use to 10 minutes, per platform, per day, or to use social media as usual for three weeks. The limited use group experienced significant decreases in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group. The researchers concluded that reducing your social media use or cutting it out altogether improves mental wellbeing.
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Teenage boys and girls spend their digital media time in different ways: Boys spend more time gaming, while girls spend more time texting and using social media, particularly apps like Snapchat and Instagram. Suicide and depression rates are higher among teenage girls and have increased at a steeper rate over the last decade, which reinforces the link between the mental health crisis and social media use.
Meanwhile, antisocial behaviour and substance use – often thought to go hand-in-hand with mental ill-health – have decreased over the last decade, which eliminates them as potential contributing factors.
How Does Social Media Impact Our Mental Health?
If used in excess, as it is currently (users are now spending an average of 2 hours and 24 minutes per day using social networking apps and sites), social media tends to foster anxiety, a sense of ‘missing out’ and feelings of loneliness. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are designed to foster constant social comparison, which creates a hierarchy whereby social worth is measured by likes and follows, inevitably leading to feelings of inadequacy.
Teenagers are often insecure and many suffer from low self-esteem and body image issues, so the negative psychological impacts of social media usage are amplified for this age group. It is clear that we are facing an urgent crisis. Unless something is done to address the root cause, there is no reason to suggest that rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among teens and young people won’t continue to increase.