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The impact of social media on young minds needs serious attention

Concerns are being raised about the impact of social media on young girls. Photo: Press Association

My teenage daughter did a remarkable thing recently. She did something most youngsters of her age would think was totally daft. She did the unthinkable: She got rid of her smartphone. Just gave it up. Gone. Done and dusted.

She swapped it for a phone that is exactly that - a telephone. She can make calls, receive calls, send and receive texts but that's it.

And here's the thing. Far from grieving for the gadget that was permanently attached to her for years, that was so much part of her life, the truth is she hasn't missed it at all. In fact she feels released from the pressure of having social media in the palm of her hand or by her side 24/7.

She is calmer and, dare I say it, happier. She says it's as if some sort of social burden has been lifted. It was her decision, her initiative and I have to say I'm glad she's done it because I'm worried.

I am worried about the impact the constant use of social media is having on the lives of millions of teenagers. I am worried about the impact of excessive use on their well being, their equilibrium and yes their mental health. There is no particular new body of evidence that leads me to feel this way. Rather, just a growing concern that for all its undoubted uses and benefits, the constant use of social media and all the pressures that go with it could be damaging.

Is there a link between excessive use of social networks and depression, loneliness and isolation? Some scientists and researchers say there is, others insist with equal vehemence that there isn't.

The truth is we don't really know the truth.

And that leaves me with a nagging sense that tens of millions of children the world over are being used as unwitting guinea pigs in an enormous and unprecedented social experiment the scale of which I'm not sure we have ever seen before. That bothers me and that's why I am making a documentary about it for ITV.

The number of Britons using social media has doubled in six years. Half of us now use social networks of one kind or another and I am sure that the vast majority do so responsibly, in an overwhelmingly positive way and with no ill effect. I use and enjoy using Twitter.

It has transformed the working life of journalists. It provides quick and easy access to news and analysis and, if you disregard the drivel,the nonsense and the trolls, it is an enormously useful and often entertaining source of information. But in just a few years sites like Twitter,Facebook, Instagram Snapchat and Bebo have radically changed the way an entire generation of young people conduct their social lives, the way they communicate and the way they build and maintain relationships.

Research scientist Aric Sigman is convinced that harm is being done.

There is growing concern that excessive use, not normal use, but excessive use of social media is linked to mental health issues.

– Aric Sigman
Many teenagers spend several hours a day Credit: Reuters

He believes part of the problem is what he calls the "natural social comparison process". For example, he says girls who constantly see people who are slimmer than they are or are having a better time than they are or have more friends online than they do can quickly develop problems of self esteem.

We always used to compare ourselves with people in our own school and our own neighbourhood but now we're doing it with many more people who very often have nothing to do with our lives.

– Aric Sigman

He sees a clear link between screen time on social networks and the increase in low self esteem, depression, anxiety and body disatisfaction.

It also seems to me that many young people are spending so much time conducting relationships online that it’s displacing or supplanting the time that could be spent with real face to face friendships in the real world. That just seems very sad. Not necessarily bad, I agree, but just sad.

Nothing seems to be private any more. The normal privacy surrounding a friendship doesn’t seem to exist now it’s all out there for everyone to see and, often, to comment on.

No less a figure than neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield has issued well publicised warnings about the potential dangers presented by the internet,gaming and social media for many years now.

She has talked about how the all consuming screen culture of the 21st Century is "rewiring" children's brains. She has been branded alarmist but should we ignore her opinion?

In the programme we speak to teenagers who are convinced that their obsession with social media has caused them serious problems.

Nineteen year old Danny Bowman tells me how his addiction to selfies and his search for perfection drove him to attempt suicide. It was, he believes, fuelled by social media. Consumed by depression and anxiety, he couldn't leave his home in Northumberland for six months. Now recovered he wants to help others diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder .

His personal testimony is hard to ignore.

Of course there are huge benefits to social media. There is a strong argument that it decreases not increases isolation and is inclusive rather than exclusive. I can see that it may help to be part of an online community where you can see what others are saying and doing, where you can “meet” people who may share your problems, issues or views. In the programme we speak to psychiatrist Dr Paul McClaren who not only believes the link with mental health problems is unproven but also insists that there are clear benefits from social networking for those prone to depression.

The 'natural social comparison' process can become tilted by excessive use of social media, some scientists say. Credit: Press Association

I think if anything it is a tool that reduces the chances of social isolation and may well offer some protection against the development of depression.

It's a very effective way of enabling young people to build relationships and to learn about how relationships work.

– Dr Paul McClaren

Social media has also created brand new channels of communication. ITV News has got together with Bite the Ballot to bring national political leaders in front of a mass online audience of young voters. It’s a livestreamed encounter powered by Twitter and YouTube and can only be good for politics. It has many similar applications in the field of education.

What is clear is that it is here to stay. Communication is only going to get easier. And we need to embrace it. It is also true that there have long been alarmist warnings about dangerous information overload.

A Swiss scientist called Conrad Gessner described how the modern world was overwhelmed with data that was “confusing and harmful” to the mind. It was the 16th Century and he was talking about the printing press!

The advent of radio and then television brought forth similar doom laden predictions of the death of conversation and reading and the disruption of family life. But of course we have coped and survived and been enriched by their introduction. But there has been nothing quite as all-consuming for so many children as social digital media. And my question is whether the unfettered, uncontrolled use is causing problems that are only just becoming apparent ?

Aric Sigman believes parents,schools and even the government should try to limit the use of social media to about two hours a day for under eighteen year olds. But how easy or realistic is that? It is not straightforward but it is important. At the very least more, serious, dispassionate and independent research is needed. Because I have made this programme and I still don’t know the truth…and that worries me more than anything.

Mark Austin presents Teenage Lives Online this Thursday, December 4, ITV at 7.30pm.