Social media and mental health

Is social media harming students’ mental health?

In recent years, the proliferation of social media use amongst young people has provoked intense debate — especially in light of increasing mental health awareness in the media. 

With 1 in 10 children experiencing a mental health issue — a figure that appears to be increasing, rather than decreasing — many are asking whether it is social media that is causing the problem.

It’s not hard to see why. In the digital age, the social pressure to be perfect on social media is intense. Whether it be through Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest, self-expression exhibited through social channels is image-focused. If our students don’t live up to these often unrealistic expectations, they can be outcast from social circles — not just online, but offline too.

The big question is whether it has a net positive or negative impact on a student’s performance in the classroom. The way we teach and learn has undoubtedly changed over recent decades, driven by new technologies and the endless knowledge base that is the internet. Many teachers, particularly those that have entered the profession in the past few years, have grown up as digital natives themselves, which in turn has affected teaching methods and attitudes.

What is also worrying is that as a society we still don’t fully understand the long-term effects that social media can have on young people’s minds. But is it just social media? And are there any positive impacts social media can have on mental health?

To find out, we have taken a closer look to answer the question: is social media harming our mental health?


Which social media platform is worst for mental health?

A survey undertaken in 2017 by the Royal Society of Public Health revealed that Instagram is by far the worst culprit when it comes to young people’s mental health. Digitally manipulated photos and an aim to portray perfection are some of the key reasons why Instagram is harmful to young minds. 

The negative effects of Instagram for young people include anxiety, depression, loneliness and bullying. These are in part caused by the unrealistic, digitally enhanced body images on Instagram, as well as induced FOMO — or Fear of Missing Out. Whilst big steps forward have been taken — with some influencers and celebrities questioning the unrealistic expectations exhibited on Instagram— it remains an issue.

Despite this, the survey also revealed that other social media platforms — YouTube in particular — can actually have a positive effect. The effect of social media on mental health isn’t always negative. 


How social media affects learning in the classroom

Whether you teach in primary, secondary or at college level, students are at a stage in their life where they are most open to influence. But how does it affect their performance in the classroom?

One of the biggest issues with students’ excessive use of social media is that it reduces the amount of real-world social interaction. Whereas 20 years ago a student may spend their evenings socialising with friends or family, today they often have more interaction digitally than they do in the real world. 

This can be a problem as real-world social interactions are vital in developing face-to-face communication skills — especially body language and non-verbal cues — which as we know, are not just necessary in the classroom, but also for a student’s success later in life.

Worryingly, studies suggest that students who multi-task, checking social media sites whilst studying, have reduced academic performance. This is primarily down to a reduction in focus. In the classroom, and particularly in exams, students are less likely to have the ability to focus for long stretches, which can impact learning ability, critical thinking and exam performance. 

Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram may be hugely entertaining, but they are having a negative impact on our students’ academic success.


The gender divide

There is a significant gender divide in mental health among young people in the UK. So much so that The Guardian described the situation as a ‘Girls’ mental health crisis.’ 

NHS Digital Data released in 2017 revealed that 71% of antidepressants prescribed to people aged 13-17 are girls. Meanwhile, more than 90% of children admitted to hospital with an eating disorder are girls. And hospital admissions for self-harm are also up two-thirds among girls in the year up to 2015-16. 

But whilst these figures are incredibly troubling, there is no definitive evidence to suggest that these increases directly correlate with increased social media use. Some reports suggest that it definitely has an effect, but it is not wholly to blame.


Positive effects of social media on mental health

With all of the negative press that social media gets, it is hard to argue that it can also have a positive effect. However, there are instances where this can be the case. It is also those suffering from mental health issues that can often benefit most from social media.

A recent column in CNN reported an instance in which Instagram supported a young male suffering from depression and an eating disorder. At the same time, Instagram accounts like Your-MentalHealth and BreakYoStigma educate, enlighten and shed the shame of mental health problems through support and love. 

Look beyond the clean eating and unrealistic body image fitness accounts, and there is a world of online support for young people suffering from mental health issues.


Can online communities actually improve mental health?

Outside the realms of social media, online communities are helping millions of people improve their mental health.

From Big White Wall, an online community that supports people living with stress or anxiety, to BlueIce, an app that helps young people manage their emotions and reduce self-harm, technology and social media aren’t always negative to our collective wellbeing. 

There is little doubt that too much exposure to social media can lead to negative mental health outcomes for our students. It changes the way students interact with each other, as well as encouraging unrealistic social and image expectations, both of which can have a negative impact on how a child learns in our classroom. But there are, at least, some glimmers of positivity.

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