Dec 02

Is there a link between social media and mental health issues?

Over the last six or so years, I have noticed that the number of teenagers who are wrestling with mental health issues has significantly increased. Along with this is the rise in self-harm. The statistics nationally show this to be the case too. 80% of 18 to 21 years old say they have self-harmed or know someone who has. Self-harm is the biggest health concern for girls aged 11-21.

social mediaThe sad reality is that whether a young person is a Christian or not, seems to have little or no impact on the likelihood of struggling with these issues.

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of useful organisations emerging to help youth leaders think through these issues and how we can help support our young people, for example selfharm.co.uk

It is a complicated subject with many triggers and causes. What I find intriguing is that the rise in self harm, depression and anxiety seems to have been alongside the increase in popularity of social media and I wonder if there might be a link.

Social media is a wonderful tool for communicating and to for keeping in touch with people. However, I am concerned as to whether we are equipping young people sufficiently to handle it responsibly.

Young people today see little difference between a conversation in the same room and an online virtual conversation. It is quite usual to meet with a group of teenagers and for them to be on their phones at the same time, checking in with others via Snapchat, Instagram or their other penchant app of the day.

My question is over how they use social media. It seems that many people use social media, understandably, to portray their best self. They want others to see them having lots of fun, being at the right parties, hanging out with the people others will be jealous of.

A lot of social media feeds could be summed up with ‘doesn’t my life look great?’ And of course, there’s the problem – looks. It might look great, but is it true? Is it real?

Conversely, you get a few individuals who use social media for a cry for attention. They post how bad their day is going, with the expectation of lots of TLC in response. If they receive such affection, it fuels their desire to post similar status updates to receive more love. But if they don’t receive the same level, it can fuel their depression.

I find this happening with myself sometimes. If you are on Facebook you will know that it tells you each day which of your friends have a birthday that day and gives you the opportunity to wish them well. So when it is my birthday, it is fun to receive lots of messages from my friends around the country, and further afield even (yes, look how popular I am!). But, no matter how many messages I receive, there is a part of me looking at the number of Facebook friends I have and wondering why the majority didn’t wish me a great birthday. How ridiculous is that?!

Social media can so easily be misused as a personality contest. How popular am I? How many followers do I have? Who am I influencing?

It reminds me of a time in our youth group once where over the course of a few months I met up individually with many from the group. Each one, almost without fail, would tell me how they were finding the youth group hard because everyone seemed to have life so sorted, and yet they were struggling to hold theirs together. The same conversation was repeated so many times that I ended up standing up in front of the whole group one week and vocalising it. When we were together, we spoke as if life was perfect, and yet deep down we all thought we were the only one who was struggling. How much more does social media exacerbate this issue?

If we play along with these rules and post images and messages which make out our own lives to be fantastic, and yet in reality we struggle with so much, we create a bigger gulf between our reality and virtual persona. We start to struggle to know where we can be ourselves, or worse, we start to believe that we must keep our true self a secret and hidden.

I spoke to one young person who had started self-harming about why the did it. He said he did it because he wanted to check that he still felt things. He considered himself to be so numb to life that he considered the need to inflict pain on himself necessary to check that he was still able to feel.

What can we as youth leaders do to help? Firstly, we need to be honest with ourselves over our struggles with this area. How are we using social media? Do we use it to build positive relationships or to develop a preferred mask of popularity?

Secondly, we need to be purposeful in developing deep, significant and honest relationships with each teenager. They need to know that we care for them no matter what they do, feel or think. We need to offer the same unconditional love as God offers.

Together, we need to stop our youth groups from being a place of perfection and apparent bliss. We need to facilitate questions of doubt, uncertainty and failure, so that we can genuinely celebrate in good times, but also mourn together in times of difficulty. We need to give young people a space where it is safe, ok and expected, that they will show their feelings, whatever they might be.

We need to build true community, built on interdependent relationships, where one person missing makes the gathering incomplete; where everyone knows they are valued and can be themselves, the work in progress that we each are.

Finally, we need to pray for our young people. Pray that they will make good decisions, that they will speak to us when they struggle, and that they will go to Father with their own Psalms of fear, hope and struggle.

I would be really interested to hear if you have seen any connection between social media and mental health issues, and what you have tried to do to help young people with this.