#6 The impact of social media on mental illness in children and teenagers

Recently, there has been a lot of criticism directed at the internet and social media sites and their impact on society, notably children and teenagers. Many people are claiming that social media is responsible for the increase in mental illness, suicide and bullying in children and teenagers. But is this true? Experts tell us that depression in kids has increased steadily for the past 50 years, and suicide in teenagers has increased 28 percent since 2000. However, the most popular social media sites amongst kids: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, were not even available until 2005 when YouTube was released. In 2006, Facebook and Twitter were made available to children under the age of 13 years, and in 2010, Instagram was released followed by Snapchat in 2011.

I do not believe social media is to blame directly for the increase in mental illness, suicide and bullying; however, I think each social media site has played a significant role in contributing to the increase.

What social media has done, is change the way we communicate, share information and develop relationships with others. Today, we can speak to anyone in the world in a matter of seconds, the challenge is that children and teenagers are quite trusting by nature and can easily be misled by people whose intentions may not be honest and trustworthy e.g. catfishing, cyberbullies, stalkers, pedophiles, human traffickers.

In addition, social media has created a world where popstars and Hollywood stars are seen as role models for children and teenagers. Sadly, this has created a world of comparison and materialism where happiness and self worth is defined by popularity, good looks and material goods. Children/teenagers believe the only way they will be accepted by their peers is to conform to these unrealistic and unattainable standards.

In short, they believe everyone’s life is so much better. Unfortunately, comparing self to others is mentally unhealthy, it stirs up feelings of jealousy and insecurity, decreases confidence and self esteem and promote delusional thinking that plastic surgery, or weight loss, or a new iPhone will make them more attractive, more popular.

Furthermore, in an attempt to give their kids, the best chance at life, many parents are buying into this philosophy and encourage their kids to be better and more popular than anyone else. Consequently, we now have a generation of children and teenagers who have little tolerance for disappointment and a strong sense of entitlement, and this is a recipe for hopelessness and self doubt, and hopelessness is dangerous because it leads to feelings of powerlessness (Brene Brown, 2017).

Social media also exposes children/teenagers to the horrors of the world they live in. Every day, they see news reports of countries ravaged by wars, riots, civil unrest, poverty, natural disasters, unemployment, fake news, the threat of global warming, migration, anti-Semitism. Furthermore, crime appears to be escalating, homelessness and economic hardship is increasing, there are more gangs, sex/human trafficking is widespread, plus we are in the midst of the opioid crisis.

As adults, many of us feel frustrated, uncertain and concerned about the changes happening, so is there little wonder our children and teenagers feel that they have little control over their lives, their future? Teenagers I have spoken to, tell me that the world they live in is confusing, scary, it is full of hatred and people seem to have little regard for the health and wellbeing of others.

Our children and teenagers are being exposed to life situations and stressors their parents never experienced. There are the pressures of attaining good grades in school, participating in numerous after school activities, and the ever present need to be liked and accepted by fellow students, peers, and friends. Even bullying in school has become more widespread and more dangerous.

Furthermore, bullying is no longer confined to school, because cyberbullying is an ever present, constant and predatorial threat in kids’ lives 24/7 (this will be discussed in more detail in Blog #7). Consequently, our children/teenagers are developing physical/mental health issues e.g. depression, anxiety at an alarming rate.

Social media facts:

  • 89% of children and teenagers either own or have access to a computer/laptop
  • 94% own a mobile phone
  • Children as young as 3 to 4 years old have their own mobile phone
  • On average, children under 11 send 41 texts per week; teenagers age 12 to 15 send 193 texts per week
  • 49% of children/teenagers are bullied online; 32% via mobile phone

What we see and read on social media is part of everyday life, and constant exposure to negativity and violence, desensitizes our kids to the point where some have no understanding of the impact of violence, anger, aggression towards others. Other ways social media increases the risk of developing a mental illness is the social isolation.

Just because a child/teenager has hundreds even thousands of on-line friends does not necessarily mean he/she is more social and happier. Facebook Envy, and the fear of missing out directly impacts kids mental well being. There are also on-line extreme communities that promote and encourage kids to diet and lose weight, to not take medications for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. For example, until recently self harm or non-suicidal self injury was normalised and even encouraged on many sites.

In 2018, a review of Facebook use found significant negative effects on well being in teenagers. The main concerns were psychological distress including symptoms of depression and symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). That same year, in the United Kingdom, a study of 1,479 14 to 24-year olds compared psychological benefits and problems of the largest five social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube. The findings revealed that YouTube was the only social media site with a positive rating, followed by Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat. Instagram was determined to have numerous negative effects including sleep problems, and a preoccupation with body image and self harm.

Video Games
Did you know that social media and video game addiction is considered more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes. Whilst excessive social media use has not been recognized as a disorder by the World Health Organization or the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition), the related diagnosis of gaming disorder has recently been included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a recognised mental disorder requiring medical/psychological intervention and treatment.

Research has proven that playing these games can actually alter the brain chemistry of a child/teenager. The physical and emotional responses triggered by the game (remember brain and body are one) mimic the responses to real life situations e.g. increased heart rate, blood pressure adrenaline, dopamine (flight, fight, fright response). In addition, playing these games increases aggressive behaviours, moodiness and desensitizes the child/teenager to violence, inappropriate language, etc.

Blue Light and Sleep
Studies have found there is a very high correlation between suicide, mental illness and insomnia.

Exposure to blue light affects the circadian rhythm by inhibiting the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that peaks at night to help with restful sleep and helps regulate the circadian sleep phase. Research has shown that sleep problems in children and teenagers is an important contributory factor to the onset of a mood disorder, anxiety disorder. Light is the strongest environmental influencer of the circadian rhythm and blue light via electronic devices prolongs the daily exposure of sleep thereby disrupting the sleep pattern. REM sleep (rapid eye movement) is necessary to maintain good physical and mental health e.g. provides emotional and cognitive benefits.

Children/teenagers who do not achieve REM sleep become moody, irritable, school grades decline (including possible truancy), eating habits change with a focus on high fat, salty and sugary foods, high caffeine based soft drinks (stimulant) which in turn have a negative effect on general health and mental well being.

What can parents do?
The most important thing a parent can do, is to talk with and listen to your child/teenager. Observe body, mannerisms, lack of communication, etc., (see Blog #3 Common Mental Illnesses in Children and Teenagers) and respond to, not react or ignore, appropriately.

Parents should talk with their kids about cyber security and also be aware of the social media sites and chat rooms he/she visits. Social media sites can be very helpful and supportive if used correctly.

To improve sleep, it may be a good idea if everyone agrees to a time where all devices can be turned off and placed in an alternate room e.g. kitchen. Also, try to limit time on social media and playing video games. Video games should be reviewed by parents before hand and discussed with child/teenager, so he/she understands that violence, or car theft, etc., is not appropriate. The more we restrict and ban certain games or access to sites, the more a child/teenager will seek them out, so perhaps the best advice is to be there, be aware, instill good values and a sense of right and wrong in your child/teen and be available to listen and talk.

In my next Blog #7
I will be discussing mental illness and bullying

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