Social media mental health epidemic

Adele Bannister, Online Safety Expert at Smoothwall, discusses how government, tech companies and teachers can work together to safeguard young people

The internet has transformed the way we live, work, travel, date, connect and communicate. There’s no shortage of devices and platforms on which to access the internet, and the advent of 4G and smaller devices means we have truly become an ‘always on’ society. While it’s made our lives easier, it’s consequently made us increasingly reliant on our smartphones and tablets, paving the way for both children and adults to check their social media accounts hundreds of times a day. What many aren’t realising is the effect this is having on our mental health, particularly among children, who are subconsciously pressured by the demands of social media.

A study conducted by The Royal Society of Public Health looking at the moods of 11-25 year olds revealed that Instagram made seven in 10 feel worse about body image, half of 14-24-year-olds said Instagram and Facebook heightened feelings of anxiety, while two-thirds reported that Facebook made cyber-bullying worse. Although designed to make people feel better, children are constantly being shown an idealised version of reality; everything from body image, excessive lifestyle and “relationship goals” can often leave young people feeling unfulfilled and inferior in their own lives when compared to those of their friends, famous influencers or celebrities. Added to that are the fears of being judged on the number of likes they get and too few notifications on their phone, which can have a detrimental impact on a child’s mental health.

So how are we able to tackle this growing mental health concern? 

Early intervention

Early intervention is vital; having health education in schools to tackle issues of mental health specifically could not come at a more crucial time. Whether it be in a technical or social form, we must make sure we teach children to protect themselves online because the reality is even young children make up a large part of internet users.

Ramp up the support from governing bodies

The fact that mental health education is to be made compulsory in English schools is a great start, but still teachers need to be equipped with more knowledge and support around the area. Our recent research found 61% of teachers don’t feel they are fully supported to teach children about online safety, within which mental health is certainly included. If we are to ensure that the appropriate internet monitoring solutions and mental health education are in place, we must urge the government to support teachers, making sure they are equipped to deal with the concerns around mental health.

Spotting it early

Teachers – and parents, too – need to be constantly switched on; emotional and physical changes amongst children can often be attributed to mental health, caused by excessive internet use. The following are key signs to look out for if a child may be struggling:

  • Becoming irritated very quickly and a short attention span
  • Lack of interest in activities that do not involve the internet
  • Little or no interaction in the real-time world
  • Loss of appetite and even weight loss
  • Becoming anxious and sometimes aggressive when unable to use their desired device

Encourage tech firms to make a stand

It would be very easy to pass the blame directly on to the social media websites. While they shouldn’t be taking all of the blame, responsibility lies with them to take an even more proactive role in smartly monitoring for illegal or inappropriate behaviour or taking down any hurtful or abusive comments, accounts and pages. We have seen progress though; recently, Google updated its policies to ban apps that tempt children with violent content, and Facebook and Instagram both introduced new tools to track time spent on the apps. These are encouraging signs, but they are only the beginning.

Smart monitoring

Just as teachers should be given the right training to tackle mental health issues, the school should have appropriate filtering and smart monitoring solutions in place to identify problems as and when they happen. Teachers themselves can’t afford to do all the work, they need software in place to help detect any signs of online bullying, offensive language or inappropriate content being shared internally. All of those things could ultimately have an effect on a child’s mental wellbeing. 

Sharing is caring

It is one of the most pressing issues facing both children and adults today, but there is no one-stop solution for those suffering with mental health – it takes effort from teachers, schools, parents, social media companies, governing bodies and beyond to safeguard those vulnerable. Sharing tools and information from these stakeholders is mission critical in helping this cause.

Children aren’t going to stop using social media and banning the internet altogether is not the answer; better safeguarding and protection is. It’s time we talked better together, worked better together and acted better together to make mental health a priority.    

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