Today’s guest blog comes from Dr Susie Davies, Founder of Papaya, and considers the impact of smart phones, social media and cyber-bullying on the mental health of adolescents.
Never before has one small object with its shiny gleaming surface and multiple apps been such an iconic symbol of modern life. From alarm clocks, to bus passes, calendars, and contactless payments our phones have become an essential part of the mechanics of our every moment. In addition are the social media platforms which help us to connect to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
Even as adults, there is no doubt that smart phones, and especially the social media apps which they are home to, hold an addictive lure. However, most of us over the age of 30, can still remember a time before we owned a smart phone and the forgotten days of reversing charges from a phone box late at night to beg our parents for a lift home.
However, it is different for those born in the so called iGen generation (1995-2003) and the years there-after. Today’s young adults’ neuronal pathways have been formed alongside apps, social media and smart phones. Many haven’t had a tech-free window in adolescence in which to develop their sense of self or relationships without technology at the core of their interactions.
Concerns about the impact of social media and smart phones are reported in the press almost daily. The recent tragic case of Molly Russell has highlighted to parents one of our deepest fears. Even from the supposed safety of their bedrooms, our children can access harmful content online, which can potentially lead to the most devastating of consequences. But Molly’s case is sadly not an isolated one. The BBC reported that more than 30 parents have approached PAPYRUS (a support charity for young people struggling with suicidal thoughts) to say they believe that social media was implicated in their child’s suicide (1). However, suicide is but the tip of the iceberg. There is a huge mountain of mental health issues, which are potentially triggered or compounded by social media, affecting our children today.
The evidence for the effect of the potential harm of social media and smart phones has been contested. Despite this Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer, has advised that parents should take a precautionary approach with regards to phone use in children because of the potential risks, which are as yet unmeasured.(2) Personally, it feels similar to the denial of the smoking – lung cancer link in the 1950s. The rise of lung cancer and the potential link to smoking was becoming apparent, but the evidence was not yet clear (or as was the case with smoking the evidence was actually being hidden by those who sought to profit from tobacco). Do we as a new generation of parents shut our eyes and pretend the negative impact of social media is not happening? Or do we have the courage to decide to act differently for our children?
Apart from the obvious issue of lost time – time which could be spent pursuing hobbies, doing home-work, and socialising with real people – what are the other issues?
To me, the real heart of the issue is the effect that social media is having on our young people’s ability to develop a robust self-esteem. Self-esteem is our unique internal mirror. It can be a true reflection of self, or as is often the case in adolescents, it is a negatively warped perception of our true self and value. This is rather like looking at a distorted image of yourself in a fairground mirror! Self-esteem goes up and down with the world around us or even more importantly varies according to how we perceive our role (either good or bad) in these events. Adolescence is notoriously a period for poor self-esteem. Puberty, exam pressures and relationship issues all arise in a narrow window of time when many teenagers will inevitably experience some emotional turbulence.
It is into this toxic mix of hormones and self-doubt that the Pandora’s Box of social media has arrived. Instead of learning to self-reflect in a positive way, which is an essential part of the healthy adolescent journey, social media sites have externalised self-esteem to social media platforms making young people dependent on ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ for their self worth. The search for the perfect selfie or the need for an affirming response from followers is, at best, an exhausting place to inhabit.
“Social media and its dopamine induced high of likes and followers doesn’t actually translate into real life experiences or happiness.”
Social media is inadvertently reducing young people’s ability to self-evaluate. By making them dependent on other people’s opinions, it is having a dramatic effect on their ability to develop a robust self-esteem and to build emotional resilience. At the simplest level, it is virtually impossible to feel happy if you don’t like yourself. Young women seem to be particularly affected by this with a quarter of 17-19 year-old females having a diagnosed mental health problem.(3) This is a very significant statistic and it should ring alarm bells to parents, politicians, and anyone who cares for the future welfare of our nation.
Recently, I received a despairing email, in the middle of the night from a mother whose daughter was being cyber-bullied. The mother was desperate and said her daughter was self-harming and suicidal. This had been caused by the hateful messages she was getting online. I don’t think anyone can really deny the potential harmful effect of cyber-bullying on young people’s well-being. Issues traditionally resolved in the playground are now, very publicly and relentlessly, being played out online, both during the day and, worse still, at night. A recent study found that 18% of children have been bullied online.(4) This is a potentially public and highly humiliating experience which can, and often does, result in anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide.
“The experience of being cyberbullied was associated with greater stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness. Victims were also more likely to exhibit a range of behavioural, emotional and somatic symptoms, and the findings identified a moderately strong association with suicidal intention. This suggests that victims were significantly more likely to have contemplated committing suicide.” (5)
However, research suggests that only 13% of children being bullied online will delete the app. On the other hand, 24% turn to self-harm and a further 22% will attempt to change their appearance in response to the abuse. (6)
These figures reflect the power that social networking sites have over children; that they are almost twice as likely to self-harm as they are to delete the app on which they are being bullied.
Returning to my story, I was able to advise the mother to encourage her daughter to delete the app she was being bullied on or alternatively to have a period without her phone. Her mother emailed back to say her daughter had voluntarily given up her phone and was now a different child. She was back in control of her life and had cut the magnet by which the bullies could access her.
In my work as a GP I am regularly seeing young adults with significant and enduring mental health problems, which include anxiety and depression, personality disorders, self-harm and suicidal intention. Is it more than coincidence that these young people are the first generation of adults to grow up with unlimited access to smart phones and social media?
As parents (I have three children) what can we do in this tumultuous season? We don’t want to live in fear but equally, none of us want our child to be the victim of cyber-bullying or of self-harm algorithms on social media. All of us, I believe, would want our children to thrive in making personal connections and relationships. Cynics will say that it is a digital world and that tech-savvy teens will have an advantage in their future work place. However, social skills and resilience are essential if the next generation is to navigate the complexities of the real world and relationships.
What do I propose? The charity I have set up PAPAYA (Parents against Phone Addiction in Young Adolescents) aims to help children thrive in the digital age. It is also to support parents to make good, positive choices around their family’s use of technology. However, to achieve this, we as parents, need to be prepared to work together. We all know how hard it can be to say no and the persuasive tsunami that our children assault us with when they really want something. However, how much easier is it to set positive boundaries when we know other parents are doing the same thing? One parent that I recently met said their community of parents had all agreed their children could only play Fortnite (a very addictive online game) at weekends (and even then for only set periods of time). Another mother, phoned all the parents of the children that her son was gaming with. They agreed a set time that they would all get their children to stop.
As parents, what are our options? At PAPAYA we encourage parents to come up with their own personal solutions and also solutions at a community level. There are no set answers and each family will find something different that works for them. Some groups of parents have collaborated and sent their children to secondary school with nothing more than a basic phone. By doing this en masse you ensure your child is not alone. However, this is not the answer for everyone. A huge step forward would be to follow the advice from Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, not to allow phones in rooms at night. It is within the isolation of a bedroom that most of the dark side of technology occurs (such as online grooming, pornography, inappropriate content about self-harm and cyber-bullying).
If as parents we can get back on the front foot and make unified decisions together we can see our children advantage from all the positives of technology without being negatively affected by its darker side.
Dr Susie Davies
Founder of PAPAYA
- The Health behaviour of school aged children survey http://www.hbscengland.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/National-Report-2015.pdf
- Kowalski,R.M.,etal.,Bullying in the Digital Age: A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis of Cyberbullying Research Among Youth. Psychological Bulletin, 2014