It is Mental Health Awareness Week from 18-24 May, and as a society there has never been a more relevant time to talk about our mental health and support each other. The pressures, restrictions and changes that lockdown has imposed on all our lives, no matter what age, ability or gender you are, have been felt enormously. 

One very natural outcome during this time is the rise of screen time, for both young people and adults. Currently we are relying on screen time to educate children, continue to work, to keep in touch with loved ones, and perhaps to learn new skills. However, too much social media screen time can have a really negative effect on young people and last issue (Mar/Apr 20) we explored the impact of social media on young minds and looked at how OTs can help promote the positive aspects and limit the negative outcomes.

It has been reported that in the last 25 years the rates of anxiety and depression in young people have risen by 70%. This is a terrifying and sobering fact, and one that can be strongly linked to the use of social media.

Social media is addictive, some believe more so than cigarettes and alcohol, we therefore have a responsibility to look more closely at the impact it is having on the lives of young people. The teenagers of 2020 have grown up with social media in their lives, it has become a platform for them to form relationships, to discover likes and dislikes, to express themselves and shape their identity as young individuals.

#StatusOfMind
In 2017 a report was produced by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Young Health Movement in 2017 called #StatusOfMind, to highlight the negative and positive aspects of social media platforms, and to call on government, policy makers and social media firms to make changes.

The report showed young people aged between 16 and 24 as the most active age group on social media. This is an age of emotional, physical and psychosocial development; a crucial and delicate time of any young person’s life.

Despite what young teenagers may say, they have young and impressionable minds that are still developing at that age and they are still trying to figure out where they fit in the world. The images, language, stories and videos they are exposed to through platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, have a tremendous impact on their values, identity, confidence and mental health as they grow up.

Negatives
As with everything, there are pros and cons to social media. The negative side of social media can have serious detrimental effects on young people.

The #StatusOfMind report highlighted that nine out of 10 girls are unhappy with their bodies. This comes as a direct result of being exposed to edited, filtered and unrealistic images of what is seen to be “the perfect body”. Young girls and boys end up comparing themselves to these images, feeling inadequate with their own bodies and this ultimately leads to low self-esteem and can potentially lead to depression.

The constant, 24-hour nature of our digital era has created an impatient world. People want instant access to the internet at all times and as a result, there is no escape from this constant barrage of potentially dangerous content. No longer can young people finish their school day and escape bullies, worries or feelings of inadequacy in the safety of their home surrounded only by the people who love them. They are constantly contactable, there is no reprieve.

Some young people are so addicted to checking their notifications and messages on their phones that it is interrupting their sleep patterns, waking up regularly through the night and checking their devices for any activity. Poor sleep quality it particularly damaging for young people as it is the time when their brains are recharging and developing, this is why teenagers need more sleep than adults. Tiredness can have serious knock-on effects to studying, eating habits, exercise and feelings of anxiety, which can seriously compromise a young person’s education and ability to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Positives
Some good things can be taken from social media too though. Many of these platforms offer supportive communities and emotional support for people who are struggling with mental health issues.

The report has recognised the movement of young people sharing their experiences of mental health, and reports that this “phenomenon” has been seen to be hugely beneficial to others experiencing mental health issues. Being able to relate your own experiences to someone who has blogged, vlogged or tweeted about their journey can help young people make sense of their own experiences and ultimately help them to realise they are not alone.

There is a great community aspect to these platforms too. Young people can choose to follow groups or pages of like-minded people, these communities can help to surround them with support and affirmation and offer a safe space to discuss any concerns or worries. These are particularly helpful to those who identify as being a part of a minority group as these communities can grow to encompass vast supportive numbers from people across the globe.

How OTs can help
As an OT working with young people it can be hard enough to keep up with the lingo, never mind the latest hashtags and trends on social media. It can also sometimes be very hard to reach young people on their level, and promoting a healthier use of social media may be met with resistance.

However, if you are working with a young person who is living with mental health issues and you believe that their social media interactions are contributing to this, then here are a few things you can ask them to do to help improve their mental health:

  1. Ask them to be honest about how much they are using social media platforms. Most smart phones will track how much these apps are being used so you can get a truly accurate timescale of how long they are spending on there – they might be surprised. You can then discuss reducing this time in manageable doses over a few weeks.
  2. Discuss the accounts they follow and what they feel when they view posts from them. If the accounts are making them feel inadequate or low, suggest unfollowing them, no good can come from a constant stream of images that bring feelings of jealousy and inadequacy.
  3. Look for positive accounts to follow. Find out their interests and search for positive role models in this area, if possible look for funny light-hearted accounts that do not have a focus on body image or luxurious, unattainable lifestyles. If in doubt, follow cute animal accounts – no-one can deny the power of seeing a cute puppy popping up in your feed.
  4. If sleep quality is being affected by a constant need to check notifications during the night, talk about measures to put in place to stop this happening. Suggest moving their phone to the other side of the room during the night and ensure it is on silent, this will hopefully stop them from easily picking it up from their bedside table through the night.
  5. Encourage substituting scrolling through their phone for reading a book, practicing yoga or meditation before bedtime. It has been proven that using technology before you go to sleep has an adverse effect on your sleep quality, discuss good sleep hygiene and plan a healthy and realistic bedtime routine.

The battle against the impact that social media sites have on young people’s mental health is an ongoing one. We are in a new era of digital usage and it has already had a damaging effect on many young people. OTs are ideally placed to promote the positive aspects and responsible use of social media, and help young people find the supportive and positive experiences that are available on these platforms.

To read the full report from RSPH and the Young Health Movement visit rsph.org.uk.

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