Social media – the mental health of teenagers

By Georgia Coates, work experience, Esher college.

This blog will look at both sides of the argument and attempt to answer the question: does social media lead to a decline in the mental health of teenagers?
Firstly, I feel the largest problem (and the inspiration for this blog) with social media is that teenagers are self-diagnosing themselves with mental health conditions without seeking specialists. ‘Comprehensive Psychiatry’ published a paper arguing that the TikTok videos of people giving detailed descriptions of their tics, symptoms and eating disorders have influenced the thought processes of teenagers, especially younger ones. There’s a hidden niche of Twitter, referred to as EDtwt (Eating disorder twitter) where people post their weight-loss tips, stories about their experiences, and what they call ‘thinspo’ – slender people, predominantly women, who others wish to look like. Exposure to these not-so hidden sides of social media surely infect the minds of impressionable teenagers and therefore can explain the fact that hospital admissions for eating disorders have increased by 84% in the last five years (according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists). Of course, the photoshopped Instagram photos don’t help this image of insecurity, with girls making their waists impossibly small for children to envy. On top of this, there are many ‘pseudo-therapists’ on TikTok who attempt to diagnose their watchers – making jokes, listing vague symptoms and suggesting a disorder with no one-to-one discussion or psychological training (An example: making a video about how being easily distracted probably means one has ADHD, and therefore influencing people into believing they have this without seeking medical advice). Viewpoint Center make an excellent point in their article on the same topic, mentioning that teenagers overestimate what is expected of them, using the example that a younger person may believe that, because they’re socially awkward with people they don’t know, they must have social anxiety. Overall, this phenomenon is dangerous because the excessive categorising of oneself can lead to a very real manifestation of these symptoms – as is indicated by the ‘Self – Fulfilling Prophecy’.
One of the largest negatives to the huge increase in social media usage has been the sensationalising of life. Edited videos of false lives and photoshopped pictures of fun often lead to ‘regular’ people feeling their lives are lacklustre. So many videos of overly romanticised situations float around social media that teenagers are conditioned into having unrealistic expectations about what it’s like to live in the real world. There’s been an ongoing trend since 2016 where creators record a day in their life and post – but many younger people don’t seem to realise how much thought goes into these videos. People meticulously plan what day of their week will be the most exciting, and embellish almost every detail of their life to try and install envy in the viewers (No one is making themselves a full English breakfast every day.) A viral video is currently bouncing around the different platforms, with social media creator ‘’ making a ‘day in the life’ video as a man with a regular 9 to 5 job. The responses to this video were primarily younger people expressing fear that their lives will turn this monotonous, boring and uneventful. One twitter user responded by saying ‘This video was so depressing that I teared up watching it.’ – only going further in highlighting that clearly the excessive posts of influencers going on holidays with their friends, shopping in the middle of the week and partying every night have instilled a false sense of the future for teenagers.
Another negative aspect social media has given to people, especially teenagers, is the decline of an attention span, which almost certainly correlates with the supposed decline of mental health in teenagers in the newer generations. The TikTok feature not allowing for videos over three minutes has conditioned younger brains into being unable to watch a longer piece of media for a prolonged period of time without distractions. I myself am also guilty of this fault – I can’t watch a film, even one I am thoroughly enjoying, without playing a game on my phone so that my brain has two things to focus on. The online advise columns seem to suggest a social media detox – something which, while definitely a good idea in the long run, seems to be a foreign and impossible concept to me and my fellow teenagers.
This isn’t just the case with videos – Twitter is responsible for the same problem. The short, snappy texts causes younger people to be more used to getting simple, undetailed information as opposed to reading longer books or articles. This seems to be a large reason why (according to 147 minutes per day on average are spent on social media, while the Reuters Institution for the Study of Journalism in Oxford found that 3% of all user’s online time is for the news.

As a teenager and a self-proclaimed social media addict, I feel it is my duty to at least try to defend these platforms. I think it’s a valid argument that perhaps it’s not that more people are falsely diagnosing themselves, but more that there’s more access to information and people feel more comfortable in expressing themselves. Perhaps people feel oppressed in their day to day lives, maybe they don’t have the time or money to see a therapist, and perhaps seeing online videos of people in similar situations can actually increase one’s understanding of themselves. This is the same reason why much more of Generation Z are identifying with different gender identities and experimenting more with their sexualities – Perhaps it’s not necessarily the case that more younger people have mental health problems and are queer, but more that people are now more willing to live their truth in a more open, accepting time. For this argument I can use the oft-used example of left-handed people: the number of left handed people built up gradually in the early 20th century and, by 2000, had plateaued. This isn’t because more people were born left-handed, but because society accepted that there was nothing wrong with these people and so they stopped lying on surveys or trying to hide. The same can be said about mental health.
One of the main counterpoints I would like to put forward is the sense of community that social media gives teenagers. Many younger people who feel unloved, alone and misunderstood, perhaps at school or in their home-life, can find a faction of like-minded individuals. There’s a group for everyone, especially on a platform as used as TikTok – but this blog will focus specifically on ‘BookTok’, a side of TikTok where book lovers come together to their their recommendations and opinions with each other, encouraging younger people to read books in an age where print is in decline. Not only does this improve attention spans, literacy and education, it gives a hobby to those who possibly didn’t feel passionately about anything before. Popular accounts, such as ‘sivanreads’, ‘aymansbooks’ and ‘billreads’ have a collective following of over a million, demonstrating that social media users do have passions and intrigue, and that the more problematic users who are responsible for self diagnosis and mental health issues are actually in the minority. BookTok has increased cultural capital, encouraging the reading of classics and foreign literature (the influx of videos about Toshikazu Kawaguchi are proof of this). I found out about my personal favourite book, ‘The Secret History’ from a TikTok video making a joke about being the ‘Richard’ of their friend group – something that, after reading the book, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. The passionate side of social media is not just limited to books – every show and film will have fan-made edits, every sport and activity will have their own community. In this way, social media actually does not ‘decline’ the mental health of teenagers, but instead builds it up by encouraging hobbies outside of the online platforms. 0
In conclusion, while on a personal level I enjoy using social media and reap the benefits, objectively I do come down on the side that social media does overall lead to a decline in the mental health of teenagers. The parading of influencers living artificial realities, the unrealistic body expectations, and the shortened attention span – all paired with the TikTok ‘therapists’ – lead to the confusion and self diagnosing of young teenagers. And, while I am admittedly a hypocrite who won’t give up my social media usage, I do think I would be a healthier and happier person if I did.

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