RSPH and the Young Health Movement (YHM) have published a new report, #StatusOfMind, examining the positive and negative effects of social media on young people’s health, including a league table of social media platforms according to their impact on young people’s mental health.
YouTube tops the table as the most positive, with Instagram and Snapchat coming out as the most detrimental to young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
RSPH and YHM are now calling for action from government and social media companies to help promote the positive aspects of social media for young people, whilst mitigating the potential negatives.
The report’s recommendations include:
- Introduction of a pop-up heavy usage warning on social media – seven in 10 (71%) young people surveyed by RSPH support this recommendation.
- Social media platforms to identify users who could be suffering from mental health problems by their posts, and discretely signpost to support – four in five (80%) young people support.
- Social media platforms to highlight when photos of people have been digitally manipulated – more than two-thirds (68%) of young people support.
In early 2017 (13 February to 8 May), RSPH/YHM conducted a survey of almost 1,500 young people (aged 14-24) from across the UK. The survey asked them to score how each of the social media platforms they use impacts upon 14 health and wellbeing-related issues which were identified by experts as the most significant.
The 14 health and wellbeing-related issues were:
- Awareness and understanding of other people's health experiences
- Access to expert health information you know you can trust
- Emotional support (empathy and compassion from family and friends)
- Anxiety (feelings of worry, nervousness or unease)
- Depression (feeling extremely low and unhappy)
- Loneliness (feelings of being all on your own)
- Sleep (quality and amount of sleep)
- Self-expression (the expression of your feelings, thoughts or ideas)
- Self-identity (ability to define who you are)
- Body image (how you feel about how you look)
- Real world relationships (maintaining relationships with other people)
- Community building (feeling part of a community of like-minded people)
- Bullying (threatening or abusive behaviour towards you)
- FoMO (Fear Of Missing Out – feeling you need to stay connected because you are worried things could be happening without you)
Based on the ratings young people gave to each platform for each of the health and wellbeing-related issues, the five most popular platforms were given a net average score which were used to establish the league table rankings:
- YouTube (most positive)
- Instagram (most negative)
Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive, RSPH, said: “Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, and is now so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues. Through our Young Health Movement, young people have told us that social media has had both a positive and negative impact on their mental health. It’s interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing – both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people.
“As the evidence grows that there may be potential harms from heavy use of social media, and as we upgrade the status of mental health within society, it is important that we have checks and balances in place to make social media less of a wild west when it comes to young people’s mental health and wellbeing. We want to promote and encourage the many positive aspects of networking platforms and avoid a situation that leads to social media psychosis which may blight the lives of our young people.”
Dr Becky Inkster, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Cambridge, said: “For young people, using social media and digital technologies as a tool to help with mental health make sense for many reasons. Social media is a part of their daily lives and so care could be delivered in a lifestyle-integrated, self-managed approach. This holistic perspective could integrate personal interests and activities. It might help improve psychoeducation, increase self-awareness of mental health and act as a preventative measure. Young people sometimes feel more comfortable talking about personal issues online.
“We also have a unique opportunity to communicate with young people on their terms and in creative ways. As health professionals we must make every attempt to understand modern youth culture expressions, lexicons, and terms to better connect with their thoughts and feelings.”
Laci Green, professional health YouTuber (1.5 million subscribers), said: “Social media has dramatically shifted how we socialize, communicate, and form relationships with each other. Its impact cannot be understated. As we navigate these new digital spaces that have so much to offer, we must be having a conversation about how it can affect our mental health. Because platforms like Instagram and Facebook present highly curated versions of the people we know and the world around us, it is easy for our perspective of reality to become distorted.
“Socializing from behind a screen can also be uniquely isolating, obscuring mental health challenges even more than usual. As the first generation of social media users become adults, it is important that we lay the groundwork now to minimize potential harm and shape a digital future that is healthy and thriving.”