Blogs 26 October

Understanding the Impact of Social Media on Young People

As a counsellor and a father I see the capacity of social media as a constant forum for judgement. My concern is how ready our young people are to face it and what impact it is already having on developing minds.

That’s not to say that social media is inherently bad – far from it. It has been shown to help topple dictatorships and mobilise communities for good. Conveniently perhaps, there is a lot of blame placed on sites like Snapchat or Instagram for the rise in mental health issues among young people. 

It is, however, the capacity of social media to feed existing insecurities – exam pressures, relationships, self-esteem – which should concern us.

Social media is reflective of what’s already happening, exacerbating issues that are already current. Think of social media plus body image or social media plus exam stress.

Social media plus bullying is another. Social media can facilitate objectification so a school bully never sees the impact of his or her words. All of those physical body language cues we’ve evolved to expect – the human side of communication beyond words – is absent from social media.

For one young client I had, cyberbullying had taken on a form of a constant negative internal dialogue. It made me realise that although we might understand the 24/7 nature of social media, we don’t necessarily understand how that kind of constant pressure can affect a young person internally. In this case the bully’s comments were living and thriving in a person’s head.

It made me think of an exercise I did in counselling training. I had to imagine I was in a job interview; my objective was to promote myself. While in this ‘interview’, however, I had a colleague sitting behind me, whispering abuse in my ear saying ‘you are nothing’, ‘you’re a fake and they know it’ and ‘you may as well just go home and die’. I was unable to process the negative input and the positive promotion simultaneously, and I consider myself a very wilful, confident adult.

For a young person, the emotional effort involved in carrying around that level of abuse all day can be devastating.

At the heart of this debate is the need to protect children and young people – from cyberbullying, from grooming and from all the potentially harmful aspects of social media. There are many ways to go about this.

December’s report from the chief medical officer will review the impact of excessive social media use and issue guidelines setting out the maximum amount of time young people should spend on social media.

There are those who believe guidelines are a waste of time and that we should be helping young people to become autonomous and resilient. We know that vulnerabilities in real life translate to the online world so should we be focusing on developing healthy relationships in our lived experience and having faith that that will be sufficient to support the young person’s social media experience?

Whatever route we take needs more evidence to support it. We should also be working with social media companies to encourage them to demonstrate socially responsible policies that protect their users. Ultimately, to take responsibility for the impact of their business.

But we should be doing something else too: listening to young people.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but I believe we should be promoting and investing in safe spaces online where young people can share their views with peers without experiencing a torrent of online abuse. Where moderated online communities can discuss issues that are troubling them, share the best ways they’ve learned to manage social media and offer advice to others.

In this way we can meet young people where they want to be, while giving them a safe sanctuary from the worst excesses of Twitter storms, trolling and cyberbullying. An alternative to the 24-hour circus of online judgement. Somewhere safe where they feel listened to and supported.