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'In the search for the root causes of children's poor mental health, we'll probably find that social media is a dead-end'

If we continue to focus on how universally dreadful the internet is, we'll miss opportunities to help young people navigate it successfully and safely, writes the former government mental health champion

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If we continue to focus on how universally dreadful the internet is, we'll miss opportunities to help young people navigate it successfully and safely, writes the former government mental health champion

In 2015, the first-ever shadow mental health minister, Luciana Berger, presented a challenge to health secretary Jeremy Hunt in the Commons.

She asked him what he thought was responsible for the rapid rise in poor mental health among young people, bearing in mind that he acknowledged it as a reality. Mr Hunt didn’t hesitate in replying with one answer and one only: social media.

I remember vividly, having been fairly recently appointed as mental health champion for schools at the time, how indignant Mr Hunt’s response made me feel (this was, perhaps, the first indication that the relationship between myself and the Tory party wasn’t going to be smooth sailing).

In blaming social media for declining mental wellbeing, the health secretary had conveniently absolved his government of any responsibility.

While I was desperately trying to raise awareness of the impact that poverty, poor prospects and changes to the education system was having on young people’s mental health, the official line from the government was essentially that the problems being faced by teenagers were self-inflicted.

There has been a trend in media during recent times for protracted hand-wringing about the way that social media has impacted on children’s behaviour and psychology.

And at the same time, speakers who shall remain nameless (you know who you are) have been touring schools with the express intention of putting the fear of God into teachers and parents, showering them with spurious "facts", such as that the average young is person spending seven hours a day online, the bulk of which is dedicated to sexting.

The combination of these two phenomena has rendered many of the adults in the lives of teens ridiculous in their eyes. The modern day equivalent of the sort of people who might have once upon a time protested against the use of the wireless in households because the airwaves could "rot children’s brains".

After all, as research conducted by former headteacher Chris Jeffery at the Grange School unequivocally showed, young people perceive social media to be much less of a problem than the adults around them do.

This has, in turn, led to an awful lot of "othering" – rolling of eyes as we world-wearily discuss the unfathomable foibles of impressionable teens who delete their selfies if they don’t get a certain number of likes within the first 30 minutes of posting. "How tragic," we declare portentously, "to have such fragile self-esteem," while we frantically scour our Facebook feeds so we can compare filtered photographs of each other’s lunches.

Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no doubt that technology is affecting brain development and, consequently, human evolution.

In fact, neuroscientists have been able to determine that, for prolific young users (defined as those who frequent social media sites for more than four hours per day – which is – take note, professional exaggerators – higher than average) the part of the brain which is responsible for having a notion of where one sits in social hierarchies and how one compares to others is enlarged, which has obvious implications for self-esteem.

We also know that notifications, however unexciting, induce a dopamine spike and therefore a Pavlovian response – which might explain why the BBC found that almost half of 12-14-year-olds feel actively guilty if they don’t respond to text messages or online notifications immediately.

Similarly, research from the University of Cambridge, conducted in partnership with the Channel 4 documentary Porn on the Brain, showed that pornography appeals to the same part of our brains as drugs of addiction. Confusingly, however, whilst pornography does not engage with the sexual part of our psyche, it is shaping sexual tastes in users of all ages.

We don't know the psychological impact

Aside from these sorts of findings, technology is developing so fast that we can't reliably measure the psychological impact. Last year, for example, a fairly extensive report on self-esteem and Facebook use was published, long after most teenagers had abandoned Facebook in favour of Instagram and Snapchat.

In fact, we probably won’t know the true implications of smart phones and instant internet access for another 20 years, by which point the novelty will have worn off and we will have forgotten to question it – much like we have with television.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that it isn’t sensible to try and limit young people’s engagement with the online world. As many households have rules around the amount of time the television can be on for in the evenings, similar rules can be made around technology in schools and homes.

Yet, at the same time, we must acknowledge the advantages that the internet brings. Many schools use interactive white boards and tablets as learning tools.

As a report by the BBC's The One Show, which travelled to a town in Wales with the worst internet signal in the UK, showed, it is increasingly impossible for children to do their homework without access to the web as a research tool. They have, quite literally, a world of knowledge at their fingertips (and having to distinguish between content which is reliable and content which is not has the potential to teach them crucial critical-thinking skills).

Similarly, social media can actually reduce feelings of loneliness, if used in a positive way.

Frequently, isolated LGBT+ teenagers can find communities of people who understand their orientation. Young people with experience of illness or disability can have access to others with similar stories. Bullied children can be reassured that they aren’t alone.

To borrow a catchphrase from David Cameron; we are all in this together. Social media is in our lives to stay and, whilst the impact it is having on a generation born into a world of smart phones is perhaps more pronounced, we are kidding ourselves if we think we aren’t affected by it.

If the emphasis continues to be placed on how universally dreadful the internet is and how we can stop its increasing influence over our day-to-day lives, we will miss opportunities to help ourselves and the young people in our care navigate it successfully and safely.

And while in an ideal world I would love to see more stringent regulations put in place to protect internet users across the generations, as the sugar-in-mass-produced-food debacle demonstrates, if we wait for the government to step in on an issue which actively contradicts the interests of capitalism we will be waiting forever.

It’s incumbent upon us to find solutions which will help children understand the dark side of the internet – cyber bullying, pro-self-harm and anorexia websites, pornography – knowing that their involvement in the online world is an inevitability.

Furthermore, when we turn our minds to discovering the root causes of poor mental health, loneliness and low self-esteem, we may find that parking the issue of social media momentarily brings us closer to the truth. 

Natasha Devon is founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team and former UK government mental health champion for schools. She tweets as @_NatashaDevon

For more columns by Natasha, visit her back catalogue of articles

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