The impact of social media on children and young people’s mental health

By Marilena Andreou – August 2021

Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist

Article published in Cherubs Magazine Summer 2021 edition

Evidence suggests that social media use has risen over the past decade in children and young people. Social media allows young people to interact with others in many different ways other than the traditional face-to-face interactions. It enables people interact with friends and family from all around the world. Although there are some benefits of regular social media use such as feeling part of a community, being able to gain support from others, preventing social isolation and being able to develop/ maintain friendships. It should be noted that high social media use has also been linked to a range of mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and stress particularly in young people.

Evidence has shown that for those that heavily use some of the most popular social media platforms (for 2 hours or more a day), their anxiety can be worsened. Unfortunately in some cases this can also lead to poorer self-esteem and even suicidal thoughts.

Cyber bullying can also affect young people and cause a great deal of psychological distress. This should not be taken lightly. At times it can be very subtle or very obvious. For example it can take many forms online such as through; sending threatening messages, posting photos or videos intended to cause distress to the victim.

Excessive use of social media platforms has also been associated with body image issues in young people. For instance, they can compare themselves to others (and celebrities) by looking at photos or videos that are posted on social media by others that have sometimes airbrushed and edited them. They could strive for the ‘ideal body’ and this is not always attainable. This can then have a detrimental effect on youngsters’ mental health as they can aspire to be just like them. For instance, in girls this can also lead to eating disorders and behaviours such as extreme food restricting or binging and purging. In boys, they sometimes compare themselves to those that are very muscular and this could evoke behaviours such as excessive exercise regimes and extreme diets.

Warning signs that social media is impacting on your mental health:

  • Spending most of your time on social media platforms instead of seeing friends in person.

  • Constantly comparing yourself negatively with others on social media.

  • Lack of concentration and generally being distracted from school/ college work.

  • Sleep problems being reinforced by excessive social media checking at night.

  • Directly experiencing cyber bullying.

What you can do to modify social media use to improve your mental health:

  • Monitor time spent online by using an app and try and set an individual goal of how much to reduce this by each day.

  • Keep your phone out of your bedroom when you go to bed at night; this reduces the temptation to check social media platforms.

  • Turn off social media notifications; so that the buzzing and beeping of messages and alerts does not become a distraction for you.

  • Try to completely remove social media apps from your phone; it is likely that the temptation to check on your computer will be automatically reduced.

  • Schedule in some regular time each week to interact face-to-face with friends and family.

  • If you are a victim of cyber bullying then don’t suffer in silence, report it!

How to help a child or young person with excessive social media use:

  • Monitor social media use and talk to young person about why it is important to limit screen time and social media use.

  • Speak to child openly about the impact social media could be having on their mental health and agree what action steps they could take to modify their behaviours.

  • Encourage child/ young person to take social media breaks; particularly if it is interfering with homework then you can ban it until work has been completed.

  • Encourage child/ young person to engage in other activities that they could also enjoy.

  • Try not to become too controlling with the young person in respect to social media habits as they might become rebellious.

In conclusion, although social media can certainly have some benefits on young people and they can find it an enjoyable activity. It is crucial to notice the warning signs if the social media use becomes excessive and to take some steps in order to modify the behaviours to improve one’s mental health.