The media is replete with dystopian tales of the negative effects of social media on young people. In a recent speech, Simon Stevens (chief executive of the NHS) suggested that the Government should consider introducing a ‘mental health levy’ to fund NHS treatment of problems fuelled by sites such as Facebook and Instagram. But how accurate is this picture and what does the evidence tell us?
Earlier in the year, my co-author James Woollard and I set about understanding the views and experiences of young people with mental health difficulties in our book Teen Mental Health in an Online World. We combined a review of the evidence with a series of qualitative interviews and focus groups with young people. Our mission was to give space to young people’s voices and provide a useful guide to mental health and other practitioners who work with them.
Contrary to what one might believe from the media, we found a mixed picture with both positive and negative effects. Our qualitative findings are reflected in a recent representative survey of 1,141 American teens age 13-17 Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences (Common Sense Media 2018) which uncovered some interesting insights. Firstly, most teens say that social media has a positive effect in their lives, such as making them feel less lonely. Secondly, and more relevant to our book, whilst vulnerable teens are more likely to report negative effects of social media (such as feeling left out) they are nevertheless more likely to report the positive benefits of social media in their lives, such as helping them feel less lonely and depressed. Social media appears to have a heightened effect (both good and bad) for vulnerable teens.
Adolescent years are a time of expanded internet use along with developmental traits such as increased propensity for risk taking, impulsivity, sensation-seeking and sexual interest. It is for this reason we believe a focus on the connected lives of vulnerable teens is an important subject for practitioners to explore and understand. In the book we introduce the readers to social media, digital tools and emerging technologies; we consider the affordances of digital for creative participation and bolstering mental health; we address developmental frameworks and perspectives; digital inclusion and resilience; digital rights and a review of evidence related to adverse experiences online. We conclude with a three step framework for practitioners to support teens’ digital resilience along with implications for services and organisations working with young people. I’ll be sharing some of these themes on this blog over the coming months.