Ali Hussain, Project Coordinator at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (King’s College London)

Ali Hussain, Project Coordinator at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (King’s College London), considers how we can overcome the challenges to health and wellbeing that are presented by social media.

The internet is firmly entrenched in our day-to-day lives. Attachment to screens in the forms of phones, tablets, consoles and computers can often dominate our attention at the expense of real life objects, individuals and experiences.

Research has shown that some young people are so invested in their digital presence, that they wake up in the middle of the night to log on to their social media to avoid missing out. For many, this can mean that there is no real distinction between the digital and the real world, making them prone to the drawbacks of the online sphere.

Amidst the growing concerns of the adverse effects of smartphone and social media addiction, two of the biggest investors in Apple have demanded that the world’s largest technology company take action. What’s interesting is that Apple as a major brand itself does not use social media, so the company can retain absolute control of the message when a new product is launched. Comments on YouTube videos are restricted, and engagement on Twitter and Facebook are finite, despite gaining millions of followers and 'likes'.

However, Apple products enable consumers to access various social media channels, without any tangible restrictions. The user-friendliness of the iPhone makes it accessible to a wide range of audiences, spanning different generations. This can however be a cause of concern if an impressionable young person is able to access the same material as a mature 40 year-old adult.

Hence why in an open letter to Apple, investors have called for new tools and options so that parents can safeguard the usage of young people through restricting certain social media sites and moderate hours of usage.

The former president of Facebook, Sean Parker, has claimed that social media is exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology by providing doses of dopamine, through 'likes' and comments on posts. Social media apps thus become addictive to users, and some experts even claim that the effects are like giving them a gram of cocaine due to young people developing a dependency and constantly craving to check their mobile phones and social media.

This increased dependency can have a detrimental impact on the mental health of young people. As a poll revealed that four out of five prominent social media networks can be harmful to young peoples’ mental health by spurring self-inadequacy, anxiety, depression and poor sleep.

These social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter) were found to exacerbate body image worries and bullying, as self-reported by participants. Recent research by King’s College London has shown frequent bullying to have poor psychiatric outcomes at midlife, including depression and anxiety disorders, and suicide.

Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, has written to companies including Facebook and Google calling for action to improve the mental health of young people who use the technology. Furthermore, according to new polling commissioned by RSPH, there is an increasing demand from the UK public for tighter regulation of social media companies. It found that four in five (80%) wanted a greater understanding of the impact of social media on the health and wellbeing of young people.

Seeing it from the perspective of young people, the internet brings with it a world full of opportunities to learn about a vast range of different topics and to acquire new skills. Social media enables young people to mould their personal brand to become a better version of themselves and inspire others to do the same. Young people are able to develop genuine connections with peers and even use social media to vicariously explore the world, maybe even plan their own adventures.

The internet also allows young people to engage and debate with their elected representatives in real time. Many young people are utilising the internet to create progressive movements and mobilise individuals from all ages. Take for example the Never Again movement, which was set up by schoolkids to counteract gun violence in the USA. The movement has raised over $3.5 million and garnered support from celebrities and politicians alike. 

Young people are utilising social media to keep up-to-date with current affairs and to air their personal views. Social media has created a space for young people where they feel included and so are more motivated to show up to the polls. Alongside which, social media is boosting political sentiment - a study by Ipsos Mori highlighted that seven in ten Britons (71%) feel that social media platforms are giving a voice to those who would not usually engage in political debate. It found that 88% of young people strongly feel this, demonstrating that social media is creating a more politically-charged culture in young people.

The Science and Technology Committee has launched an inquiry into the impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health. The inquiry will seek to draw on the perspectives, experiences and initiatives by children, schools and youth organisations. The amalgamation of such perspectives will shine light on both the positive and harmful impacts of the digital sphere.

An All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing was established by RSPH in March 2018. The APPG will be crucial in building cross-party collaboration and further policies that mitigates the negatives and maximises the positives of social media for young people.

We are now witnessing greater interest in the role of the digital world on young people – the work of such APPGs and committees will aid in bringing forth research and experience into the public domain, increase legislation and hold technology and social media companies to account. This will better equip parents, schools and youth organisations to manage young people in a digital world.

The evidence brought forward can help in eradicating the myths of the internet, and prompt further research into the effects of social media, both beneficial and harmful, in young people.