Social media interact with young people’s mental health and wellbeing in many ways that need to be better understood if we are to help young people to navigate the challenges of twenty-first century life, according to a briefing published today by Centre for Mental Health.

The briefing paper, Social media, young people and mental health, looks at evidence about the impact of social media use on the mental health of young people. It finds that while many studies have focused on the risks and potential harm caused by social media use, there is also evidence of potential benefits. And only by building a three-dimensional picture of the many ways young people interact with social media will we be able to reduce the risks and make the most of the opportunities they present.

The briefing notes that the potential risks to wellbeing include addiction or dependency on social media, often as a substitute for other kinds of social interaction, unhelpful comparisons and jealousy, and bullying. Potential benefits may include the creation of new social connections and opportunities to encourage greater mental health literacy and help-seeking.

The briefing calls on government departments, social media companies and charities to work together to find ways of preventing or mitigating the risks and maximising the benefits to young people’s mental health. This may include changing the way social media platforms work, but also supporting schools and families to help children and young people to navigate social media safely and making greater use of the opportunities to promote good mental health and speedy help-seeking.

Centre for Mental Health chief executive Sarah Hughes said:

Social media use is fundamental to many of our lives today, and particularly those of young people. Public and political debate about social media and mental health has so far been polarised and often lacking in evidence. Blaming social media for mental health difficulties with many complex causes simply alienates the young people whose lives are being debated and social media companies who could do more to help young people to thrive. We need a new start that starts with the experiences of young people, that understands the context in which social media exist in young people’s lives and that seeks solutions which will make a difference. 

Rhys Edmonds, a student at London School of Economics and co-author of the briefing, said:

Although the evidence base is still emerging, we are beginning to get a clearer picture of the implications of social media for young people's mental health. It's important, however, that we don't jump to conclusions straight away, as there may be many factors involved in this relationship. Stakeholders in mental health policy, third sector and the technology industry must work together to make sure that the potential negative impacts of social media use are mitigated. This will undoubtedly require innovative public policy solutions which simultaneously address the most harmful aspects of social media, whilst ensuring that its use is not restricted.

Download our free briefing or read Rhys Edmonds' opinion piece

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