iOn a regular basis I have a telephone call – someone close to me is struggling with a friend who feels suicidal. Throughout my career I have had clients who feel suicidal, self-harm, are depressed. When I was in the drug and alcohol field I could pretty much guarantee a severe trauma underlying these feelings of self-annihilation and self-harm. Then I began working in a secondary school and met teenagers missing class because of anxiety. The kids and their symptoms would leave me a little confused as the anxiety appeared to come from nowhere and over not very much – exams and family breakdowns aside. Now on a regular basis it’s university students who are anxious, self-harming, depressed, suicidal and not because they are failing, indeed they are succeeding. So what’s going on?
Shortly after the last phone call, I was scrolling through a feed and happened upon another article with a headline stating a rise in teenage mental health issues and one culprit. It came as no surprise to me that the article related to the uptake of smartphones and steady increase of teenage (and millennial) mental health issues.
It seems that since the uptake of smartphones and along with it, social media, how our kids feel about themselves has plummeted leaving them feeling ‘useless’ and ‘joyless’ (“I feel so sad all the time, like I’m failing and I can’t do anything’) - symptoms of depression. And guess what, they are hurting themselves, and trying to kill themselves.
The problem with social media is that it’s algorithms ensure that the user only gets posts relevant to them. For instance, last year according to my social media feed, the Conservative party were going to be voted out and Clinton was going to be the new US president, oh, and we would remain part of the EU. Imagine my shock, horror, and deep sadness to find out that the rest of the world, those not feeding into my social media stream, felt differently than I did, and apparently, there were more of them too.
I only take in data that confirms how I feel about the world, and how I feel about myself.
This is called Confirmation Bias. So, our children, with their personal beliefs about themselves, the world and others, take up social media and their world begins to shrink as they seek out others who confirm those beliefs, especially the negative ones. (this of course happens unconsciously!)
Our social media feeds are filled with pictures of people having a good time. People spending lots of money. People going to exotic places, people that are slim, attractive, successful, rich and all the other things we are raised to aspire to growing up. Hmmm... So, what happens when you can’t achieve that? Do you shrug your shoulders and say ‘life is good’ and get on with it or begin to compare yourself and look at yourself negatively? Do you decide you can never achieve (so you are a failure or worthless). Do you look ahead and think that that world just doesn’t exist for you? Having decided you don’t have this because your useless, let’s throw in a bit of confirmation bias and hey presto. If you are feeling bad about yourself then social media is not the place to go to feel better.
The study found that risk of suicide factors increased after an hour a day was spent on social media. Kids are losing how it interact with other humans. The very core of what makes us happy and keeps us sane is other human interactions, relationships. We are born into a relationship with ourcaregivers, without that early positive interaction with another human we will psychologically wither and die, believing we are not worthy, not good enough, shouldn’t exist. We then learn how to survive by adapting to our environment. Our beliefs and feelings about ourselves, others and the world are then reinforced by the relationships around us. What happens when you remove those relationships? I can only imagine it would be akin to riding a rollercoaster without the safety bar across.
There is more to this than just social media, but then again, there are more issues than just this. Kids and parents have become risk adverse, the media terrifying us on a daily basis. Children don’t go out to play with their friends without adult supervision (just in case). They don’t have the same opportunities to problem solve and survive – then we thrust them into the big wide world with deadlines, risks, bills, studies! They are under resourced and under prepared and try to act like adults. Only they can’t. What can we do. Interestingly, a study found that participants who stopped using social media for a week began to feel better, so let’s start with that. Let’s teach our kids to take risks and learn how to play. Let’s model positive relationships. But perhaps most importantly of all, let’s model that we are OK with ourselves and who we are, regardless of bank account or waist size. Perhaps if we can all begin to feel a bit better about ourselves we can teach our children that we, and they are good enough.
Twenge, J. M, Joiner T. E , Rogers M L et al: Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcome’s and suicide Rates Among U.S Adolescents after 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time, November 14, 2017