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What’s the impact of social media on adolescents with mental health disorders?

What’s the impact of social media on adolescents with mental health disorders?

Basil Mussad explores the influence social media can have in exacerbating psychiatric symptoms.

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We spend countless hours feverishly checking our notifications and scrolling through newsfeeds on social media. We lose track of time. Meanwhile, that extra kick of dopamine when we receive a ‘like’ or a retweet keeps us coming back, again and again. 

Media conversations in recent years have centred on how excessive social media use can have a negative impact on mental health, while many recent articles suggest that it negatively affects our relationships and ability to communicate with one another. 

However, it’s encouraging to see a growing concern for mental health in our society and more open discussions on the topic. Mental health awareness week is an initiative that has worked to change the public perception of mental health diagnoses and the stigma that surrounds the topic. Issues that formerly brought shame are openly discussed in pulpits across the country and the church is more alert today to the mental wellbeing of its community. Yet little is known about the specific impact that social media has on some of the most vulnerable members of society: adolescents with a mental health diagnosis. 

The last decade has seen an upsurge in adolescents described as ‘extreme internet users’. Having worked at a school for adolescents with emotional behavioural disorders, and in an in–patient adolescent psychiatric unit, I have seen first–hand the dramatic influence social media has in exacerbating psychiatric symptoms. These are some of the problems that teenagers are facing:

‘Feedback addiction’ is a concept developed by psychiatrists to describe an insatiable need for approval. This need is then intensified by a complex online world that provides instant gratification in the form of likes, follows, retweets, and shares. It particularly impacts teenagers who lack the appropriate developmental maturity to differentiate this artificial approval from real life relationships. 

Teenagers with problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) lack the self–control to regulate social media use and can become dissatisfied with offline relationships. That’s why they tend to seek further reward in virtual communities. This can lead to harmful social isolation and the development of risky relationships that may lead to anti–social behaviour. Gang membership and initiations are often organised on social media. I have witnessed children being manipulated into joining gangs simply due to a need for a caring community which they couldn’t join because of their mental health problem. 

Experts will often talk about ‘social currency’. This is measure of an individual’s value based on their social media presence. Social currency can allow for self–expression but it can easily be lost, leading to psychological disturbances. It’s similar to the experience of losing a job. It is now established that rejection online, whether real or perceived, has a similar psychological effect on us as face–to–face rejection.

Imagine then what life is like for teenagers today: You go through changes in emotions and physical appearance. You find it hard to navigate relationships with your peers and with romantic partners. You try to balance your role as a dependent with the responsibility of being independent. You struggle to maintain an online presence and keep up your ‘social currency’. On top that, you have a psychiatric illness. It’s simply too much. 

But teenagers face another kind of problem. We have all heard of opinion–reinforcing ‘bubbles’. If you ever wondered, the technical term is ‘homophily’. It describes the creation of an online microcosm with newsfeeds populated by people with similar views. I remember my own bubble in the run up to Brexit. My young, liberal, London–based newsfeed suggested that the ‘remain’ vote was guaranteed to win. Lo and behold, it didn’t, and I was shocked. This is similar for teenagers who suffer with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). They may have a newsfeed filled with other teens obsessing about their appearance. This tends to exacerbate symptoms such as low mood and compulsive checking behaviours. #fitspiration #thinspiration #bodygoals – these are just some of the words used on highly–visual social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat that are probably having an unprecedented detrimental impact on a vulnerable adolescent’s mental health.

Many say that social media restriction is the answer. I think they’re wrong. Punitive action is far from the long–term solution that we need. Claire Lillis gets at what I think is in fact closer to the mark. She writes: “These volatile young people are fragile and need consistent support networks. They must develop the self–esteem and interpersonal skills to become responsible adults with fulfilling careers and relationships”. 10% of children and young people have a diagnosable mental health problem, which means that this issue is not distant from our neighbourhoods, our churches, and our homes.

On an individual level, we need to be able to recognise the signs of a struggling teen and educate ourselves so we can pick up on the subtle hints around us. As a community, we need to recognise the signs of excessive social media use and bear the responsibility to bridge the gap in communication between virtual and offline reality.

Churches and other faith–based charities have great potential to help in this area. XLP, for example, is a brilliant Christian charity that works closely with struggling teens to, amongst other things, bridge the gap between virtual and physical community. They have dedicated volunteers and mentors who meet with young participants weekly, to enable them to reach their potential in all areas of life. Examples of other faith–based interventions in this area can be found in Theos’ 2017 scoping study, Christianity and Mental Health: Theology, Activities, Potential. Yet more needs to be done.

So I ask, with hope: Is it possible for faith groups to use online platforms to give comfort and share wisdom with vulnerable youths? Can we work with web content developers, schools and mental health professions to provide more positive engagement online? Could popular sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter be convinced to promote help–seeking behaviours in vulnerable teenagers? to encourage creative online expression that increases self–esteem and discourages harmful behaviour? I certainly hope so. 

 Image from Pixabay used under this Creative Commons licence

Basil Mussad

Basil Mussad

Basil Mussad is a fourth–year Medical Student specialising in psychiatry at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry

Posted 18 May 2018

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