A promising teenager dies by suicide. It is a sad story that we are hearing more and more often, according to official statistics. But their death is not the end of their story. The press moves in, looking for an easy narrative, a way of tidying up a complicated and complex set of circumstances. And, in doing so, they reduce that young person’s life down to a single driving force. A bogeyman that can be used as a way to try to fathom the unfathomable.
It’s been this way for years. Heavy metal music, horror films, video games. All have been directly linked to teenagers’ mental health in a reductive and often unhelpful way. And this Children’s Mental Health Week, the spectre under the spotlight was social media.
You might have seen coverage last week of the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell. The Sun branded Molly "Instagram suicide teen". The Times headline read: "Revealed: How Big Tech pushes teens like Molly Russell to suicide". The BBC said: "Self-harm content grooms people to take own lives". The overriding message was unequivocal: a young woman is dead and social media is to blame. It’s a simple narrative; an attractive story with a distinct premise and solution. It’s the kind that sells papers.
Yet, we know life is rarely that easy to define: the Samaritans media guidelines on suicide state that approximately 90 per cent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health problem at the time of their death. So if a young person is researching suicide or self-harm techniques, the evidence points to their already being vulnerable. Put another way, a person in crisis is looking at social media, social media itself is not causing the crisis.
It is important to note that this does not absolve social media companies of responsibility: they should moderate their content to protect those at risk from mental health issues. Media guidelines set out by charities like the Samaritans and Beat aren’t predicated on the notion that you can persuade someone into suicide, self-harm or eating disorders if they weren’t already vulnerable – they are there precisely because those who are already vulnerable need protection.
But if we focus only on demanding changes to social media, we risk claiming victory on a symptom of poor mental health among our young people while ignoring the root causes.
A YouGov survey for the Prince’s Trust last week revealed that the number of young people in the UK who say they don’t believe that life is worth living has doubled during the past decade, from 9 per cent in 2009 to more than 18 per cent today. Reporting also linked this to social media – the Guardian followed the statistic with “amid a sense of overwhelming pressure from social media which is driving feelings of inadequacy”.
Yet this fails to consider that the chain of causation might work in reverse. I know, for example, that it is during the periods my anxiety is at its most acute that I feel most compelled to check my social media feeds. There, I seek distraction, entertainment, reassurance and connection. I know from a logical standpoint that I am more likely to log off without those last two needs being met, but social media was not the cause of my seeking them.
So, I’d like everyone working in education to embark on a thought experiment. What if we chose, for a defined period (let’s say a month), to let go of the notion that social media is the most significant driver of poor mental health in young people? What if we perceived social media as the means by which young people communicate their distress, as opposed to the cause of it? What if we stopped looking in the same corner of the room and took a step back to view the room in its entirety?
We will find, I suspect, that social media is a factor and a catalyst, but that the causes require a more fundamental social revolution. But those are just my conclusions – let me know what you discover over the next few weeks.
Natasha Devon is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner, and averages three UK school visits per week. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here