Scroll Free September is an initiative being launched by the Royal Society of Public Health in the UK, encouraging young people to stop using social media for a full 30 days to counteract problematic use. Claire Murdoch, the National Director for Mental Health, NHS England remarked:
“Scroll Free September is right to highlight growing concerns that social media is contributing to increasing mental health issues in young people, and a major ramp up of services will be needed to deal with the problems as part of the NHS 10 year plan. We need to see concerted action, with everyone taking responsibility, including social media giants, so that the NHS is not left to pick up the pieces of a mental health epidemic in the next generation.”
Social media has long been earmarked as the root cause of the surge in mental health issues among young people today. Anxiety, depression and low self esteem are often attributed to high levels of use. But as social media use continues to balloon, how do we ensure young people are protected from these outcomes?
The Irish Independent ran a story this week stating that 28% of youngsters say social media makes their lives more difficult. On the flip side, the same study revealed that 60% of 16-21 year olds report social media has had a positive impact on them. But guess which one made the headline? Fear mongering is a common media tactic and concerned parents may be more likely to click on a sensational headline like this over one that reads “Hey, the kids are alright actually!”
So we understand that social media can have a positive effect but why the contradictory findings? Research is divided on the emotional impact of social media on users. A number of studies point to the positive outcomes of social media, such as social connection, lower loneliness levels and increased social capital. On the other hand, a large share of research outlines negative consequences, including anxiety, depression, loneliness and low self-esteem. Interestingly, a recent paper by Amy Orben looked at longitudinal social media research spanning 10 years and found only a minuscule correlation between increased social media use and decreased wellbeing. And even at that, this finding was only evident among young girls. Orben stated that current social media research can essentially skew the data in favour of a pre-determined outcome. If researchers want negative results, they can find them. Similarly, if Facebook and Instagram want to prove the sites are harmless to wellbeing, they can do so. There are too many variables at play to accurately assess if social media is “good” or “bad”. What can be investigated is how specific behaviours and individual traits contribute to certain outcomes.
Research into social media is often polarising, labelling platforms either good or bad but the reality is a lot more nuanced. Studies have shown that active social media use is a positive thing, helping users to strengthen social connections and bond with others. The main source of negative impact is passive social media use, or scrolling through timelines absorbing content without interacting. Passive user behaviour carries more of a risk as it bypasses the social connection afforded by active use. This can be particularly damaging for vulnerable users with low self esteem. Social media can often be used as an easy scapegoat as the root cause of mental health issues in young people. However existing issues are potentially exacerbated by social media rather than having arisen from over-use. Users with low self esteem may be more pre-disposed to social comparison and should be supported in curating their feeds, to avoid these potential negative repercussions.
We are already seeing tech companies rolling out features to protect user wellbeing – Instagram has recently removed it’s “Likes” display in an attempt to quell social comparison on the site. Scroll free September is designed to support wellbeing, but it is ultimately quite extreme. Social media is not going anywhere, anytime soon. Instagram has recently bypassed the 1 billion user mark and new channels, such as Tik Tok are gaining popularity.
The headlines will continue to vie for attention but make sure to look critically at any article claiming all social media is bad. Remember Kranzbergs law –
“Technology is neither good or bad, nor is it neutral”.
For this reason, it is necessary to take a holistic view of social media use to form a comprehensive picture of the pathways to positive effect and the behaviours which may prove damaging.