Time and time again, the media is bombarded with an array of articles that debate the extent to which social media is to be held accountable for trends of poorer mental health among young people. Last week this debate was again reignited. Recent NHS data found that hospital admissions for young women who self-harm have nearly doubled in the last twenty years. Compared to 1997, figures of young women seeking help for self-harm have increased from 7,327 to a staggering 13,463 in 2017.
Naturally, it didn’t take long for the media to respond with a dozen written pieces attributing this dramatic rise to the use of social media in teens, alongside the pressures and demands of modern online life. Vocal journalists came forward in their dozens, condemning the negative psychological impacts of sites such as Instagram. Yet, their view was not shared by all. “We need to stop blaming social media for the teenage mental health crisis”, wrote mental health campaigner, and founder of the Mental Health Media Charter, Natasha Devon, MBE. Devon, instead, argued that the relationship between social media and mental health is far more complex than people think.
In fact, some of the latest research has shown that social media can actually benefit a person’s wellbeing – depending on how it is used. An article shared by the mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness explained how sites such as Twitter act as a communicative tool connecting young people, and introducing them into a supportive community. Social media can act as a platform that allows people, who are otherwise too isolated or frightened, to talk about their struggles and perhaps even encourage them to reach out for help among trusted peers or adults. So how dangerous is social media for our mental health? Or has social media become society’s go-to excuse for its own failings to provide adequate support for mental health issues? Is the argument that social media results in poorer mental health not an oversimplification of a much bigger issue?
I’m certainly aware of the impacts social media use can have on a person’s mental health; I was, myself, a tumblr user at 14, who quickly got trapped in a toxic community of online users sharing pictures of self-harm scars. The act soon became so normalised to me. Each time I logged in I was reminded that I wasn’t alone and there were other people out there going through the same thing. But in person I’d shamefully hide my forearms from classmates for fear of judgement. For a long time, my tumblr site was my primary outlet – a means by which I was able to escape from some of the thoughts wracking my frazzled little brain. At the age of 14, however, I was incredibly naive to the fact that I was constantly exposed to triggering and pro-harm content that worsened my mental state. Now at 21, social media and I have a mostly amicable partnership: yes, I still find myself going on the odd social media detox in times of stress, but I’m far more mindful about my online activity, and certainly willing to remove myself from sites with posts that I find distressing or upsetting.
It is Devon’s belief that there are many factors that contribute to the teenage mental health crisis. Of those written about in her article, social isolation, gaps surrounding mental health education in the national curriculum, academic anxiety, and poverty – which she interlinks to the austerity cuts that began to take effect in 2010 – were all listed to contribute to the current mental health crisis. Then, of course, there are the visible implications of the drastic cuts made to the mental health services in this country. Waiting lists are now at an all-time high, with people being left waiting even years at a time, and thresholds are ever-increasing, meaning that a young person must reach crisis point before even being considered as a serious enough case that warrants professional medical attention. The services are over-stretched yet under-funded, and trained practitioners in mental health are seeing ever-growing caseloads of patients. Vulnerable teens and young people are still being turned away from the services, left abandoned and told to “go calm down.” They are being failed, and without accessible and available services for early intervention, they will continue to be failed.
It certainly makes sense that social media would be the cause of blame for the self harm rates of young women almost doubling, as technology and social media sites have entered our lives in a massive way over the last twenty years. We can communicate with one another far more easily, and we are becoming more interconnected than ever. But as these ways of communicating with each other online are becoming more developed, there are darker sides to the internet that remain problematic.
While it makes sense that social media is at least partially to blame for increases in various mental health issues, data as devastating as this should be encouraging society to have far more frank conversations about how it is managing mental health issues – or, more accurately, failing to do so. Rather than immediately dismissing the increase in self-harm among young women over the last twenty years as just another consequence of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, it is time for a serious change in the way we are responding to young people in crisis. Even though understanding the causes of such trends is important, if we keep focusing all energy and resources into looking back, we won’t be able to look forward and put the most appropriate provisions in place to support those in need. These young people deserve compassion, and they deserve help.