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Social media and the cost to our mental health

First the good news: Teenagers and adolescents have begun to turn their backs on smoking, drinking and drugs.

Young people classed as belonging to Generation Z – those born during the post-Millennial period, that is – are demonstrating clear behavioural changes that are to be applauded.

Smoking in adolescence? 

Down from 9% to 5% (compared to figures focused on Millennials – the preceding generation).

Drinking amongst under-14s? 

Likewise it’s less – having fallen from 52% to 48%.

There’s also evidence suggesting anti-social behaviour is becoming much less commonplace, with assaults having dropped 8% between the respective generations according to research.

These are all encouraging findings – there can be no question.

Yet the news is not all so positive.

Emanating from the latest research from the UCL’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies and Liverpool University, these figures suggest that, while certain unwanted behaviours and practices are becoming rather less common among young people, other issues continue to rise unabated.

Those issues?

Depression for one – with recorded rates amongst adolescents having increased from 9% to 16% during the last decade. 

Then there’s obesity – which has doubled (from 4% to 8%) – and growing concerns and worries about body image.

Generation Z teenagers are much likelier to consider themselves overweight or obese compared to their Millennial counterparts at the same age (up from a quarter (26%) to a third (33%)).

The reason?

It’s becoming ever-more difficult to reach a conclusion that doesn’t have social media and the internet at its heart.

Professor Yvonne Kelly, part of the UCL team behind the study, has suggested as much (although is at pains to point out other significant contributing factors that, we agree, cannot be underestimated).

‘[Generation Z] is spending more time engaging with social media and consuming information via those platforms,’ she noted. ‘It could be to do with the content and context of that use. 

‘Social media could be a conduit, although there is still a question mark over whether it is causally related to markers of wellbeing. There are many many influences on wellbeing and mental health: the pressures through education, the impact of COVID on schooling and unemployment.’

In this, we are in full agreement, for the factors can be complex and many, and the precise link between social media use and mental health issues continues to divide opinion and prompt debate.

Our belief here is that, while there is rather more to it than technology, social media has become so pervasive in our lives (amongst adolescents in particular), that it is at the crux of it all. 

Research has found that between Millennials and Generation X, social media use has increased from two-and-a-half hours a day to three hours. 

In our opinion, the accompanying rise in associated issues cannot be a coincidence.

Too much time is being spent online and, whilst certain behavioural changes are to be welcomed, others are not. It’s encouraging that teenagers are less likely to dabble in smoking and under-age drinking, make no mistake about it. But they’re also missing out in other areas that are crucial to their health and happiness, for social media is not real life and spending such long periods online and detached from the real world can come at a cost.

Pursuing hobbies and interests, spending time with others, enjoying activities and contributing to society; these are the things that connect us and make us feel happy and well.

COVID-19 and the lockdown restrictions haven’t helped in this regard, that much is clear. But social media is chief amongst the culprits and, as life in the UK begins to open up once more, it’s something for us all to bear in mind as we strive to work out how to make our young people more content and happier with their lives once again.