Emma Walker, second year BBSRC-ESRC funded Centre for Doctoral Training in Biosocial Research PhD student at University College London’s Institute for Epidemiology and Health Care, describes how getting involved with research on social media helped her to reflect on her own usage.
It’s 00.23 and I should be in bed. I’ve got lots on tomorrow but I’ve spent the last 45 minutes scrolling. Scrolling through the profiles of Instagram “life style coaches”, yogis, models; each collection of photos perfectly curated to appeal to my desire for millennial aesthetic.
Everything feels so much better than anything I have. And actually, in the world of Instagram, I know that everything is much better than what I have. Number of followers or number of likes on each post has conveniently quantified this for me.
The next evening, as part of my public health PhD work, I’m reading Professor Yvonne Kelly’s paper laying out the effects of social media use on the mental health of girls. I diligently make notes “.. greater social media use related to online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem and poor body image .. ” “..girls affected more than boys..” and pause periodically to check my phone.
All my friends are at the pub having a great time, another friend just put up a post where she looks amazing, it already has 50 likes. I get to the methods section of the paper “how many times in the last 2 weeks have you felt miserable or unhappy; found it hard to think properly or concentrate; felt lonely; thought you could never be as good as other kids…”.
Then the penny drops. Why do I think I’m immune? I’m like the lifelong smoker who’s confused by their cancer diagnosis: “I never thought it would happen to me.” The idea starts to filter in: I don’t need this in my life. In fact, I need this to not be a part of my life.
The next day I deactivate my Instagram account. That day I meet a friend for coffee in a hipster café and don’t take a picture of my coffee. That night I get to sleep by 11pm. The next day I work more productively than I’ve worked in weeks.
An opportunity to get involved comes up: the National Literacy Trust are really interested in Yvonne’s work and are keen to put together an event for young people. A great group of undergraduates and I devise a series of activities to find out what young people think about the research.
The first section would involve 4 zones at the front of the Renaissance Learning centre room for Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree and Strongly Disagree we put a series of statements on the board and ask the pupils to move to a zone and explain why. We include statements on a range of topics including cyber bullying, sleep deprivation, self-esteem and body image and parents and social media.
On the day, the 50 enthusiastic 11-14 year olds from 3 schools across London jostle about, keen to share their opinions and to hear one another’s. I’m amazed at the diversity of ideas, overall willingness to get involved and the mental health literacy of many of the students.
Some responses are predictable; the boys happy to appear less concerned about body image, many keen to state in front of their teachers that social media does not in any way disrupt their studies. Some are surprising; only a handful of pupils had been on social media before arriving at the event that day (a significantly lower proportion than the adults running it!) Other responses are hard to read; were the gaggle of girls laughing at the very idea of social media posts making you feel left out, honest or desperate to seem not to care?
A clear feeling was the young people’s frustration at their parents use of phones and social media. Many expressed irritation at the rules their parents have established - no phones at the table, in bedrooms, after 8pm - that they, themselves constantly break.
One boy described having to ask the same question 3 times before his dad will look up from his phone. The idea that our event should be run for parents was cheered.
Next we presented them with the evidence base for the possible impact of social media and mental health then asked them to make public health campaign like posters with top tips that could go up in their schools. We were presented with a beautiful collection of posters with thoughtful advice, carefully put together information, clever slogans and eye catching drawings. Audio recordings from the day gave further insights from the young who readily offered tips and advice for younger children.
Overall, I think the event was a success. My main impression was that these young people are actually very well equipped to protect themselves from the potential mental health impact of social media. That in fact it may be people in their 20s, who have grown up in the full glare of social media and its pressures, who are at the greatest risk.
It was a real privilege being able to discuss this topic with young people and the message that stood out the most from them is the opportunity parents have to make a difference by practicing what they preach. Chances are they’ll benefit from switching off!
As for me, it’s now been 6 months since I deleted Instagram and whilst it hasn’t been plain sailing - I have got this itch for the buzz of an influx of likes - for the time being I’m happy and I would wholeheartedly recommend it!