As the next generation of young people grows up under the embrace of 24/7 social media feeds, one study has concluded that there is a link between the prevalence of social media and the increase of mental health issues on a global level.
The American Journal of Epistemology has recently released their study that draws a connection between the development of mental health in young people and their experiences on social media. This connection is most notably drawn through their interactions, or essentially the lack thereof. Generation Z, the group born between the mid 1990’s and early 2000’s, conducts the majority of their communication through social channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Musical.ly, and the most widely criticized for fostering negative self-esteem, Instagram. It’s through these social channels that Gen Z communicates through likes, photos, videos, and other features built into the app, thus increasing their exposure to the images on these apps.
Many of these sites do not require parental consent to use the app. In fact, the legal age to search the web without the consent of a parent is 13, as set by Congress in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. With this in place, many children are exposed to a variety of content across all age groups, but specifically within their peer group, without the guidance of their parents. While online predators are the most perceived threat from online social interactions, another growing threat on the internet is the content generated by other users. Viral photos, videos, blog posts, and games that promote self-harm and substance abuse are forms of user-generated content that are often used in cyber bullying, whether directly or indirectly. This can affect the mental health of their victims. Teens exposed to this increase their chances of participating in unhealthy activities, including eating disorders, self-harm, aggressive behavior, and unhealthy sexual practices.
Another form of user-generated content that contributes to the increase of mental health problems as cited by the Royal Society of Public Health is that image-based social media platforms cause the most harm to an individual’s mental health state, i.e. Instagram. As a result of these online interactions, the suicide rates amongst young people have increased significantly over the past few years from 2007-2015. The number of suicides in young, teenage girls almost doubled in 2015, after hitting a relative low in the previous years. Psychologists and researchers have linked this spike in suicide rates amongst young girls to the prevalence of perfection standards that social media sites create.
Kids and teens are still developing, lacking the emotional maturity to form a healthy sense of self. Teens who are most affected by social media either have an extremely low self-esteem or are hard on themselves with unrealistic standards for performance. Both hold unrealistic expectations of perfection. These feelings are often fostered in full by “unrealistic highlight reels” of perfect social media photos and posts. The idea is that this is the image of perfection that must be attained. On the other hand, these same social sites are grounds for disparaging content from their peer groups. Ever emotion, whether negative or positive, is tracked on social media for all to see. This creates the feeling of, “Either I need to be perfect or I need to be punished”. Once the concept of failure or lacking the status to meet those standards is introduced and internalized, teens who suffer from these ideas of perfectionism are quick to detach themselves from the outside world, often threatening suicide or other forms of harm. This behavior continues until the “perfect image” is attained or suicide has taken their life.
Mabel Yiu, licensed marriage, and family therapist, is the founder of the Women’s Therapy Institute, a therapy center dedicated to helping women and young girls deal with the pressures associated with life. During her teen counseling sessions which start as young as 12, she has witnessed firsthand the damage that social media standards and cyber-bullying can have on the ever-developing self-esteem of young girls.
Mabel Yiu, MFT, has been a therapist for nearly a decade. She is a certified suicide and crisis counselor, sexual assault counselor, parenting instructor, and more. Mabel is also an adjunct professor with the University of San Francisco and a clinical supervisor at a community mental health clinic in San Jose. She opened the Women’s Therapy Institute in Palo Alto, California as a means to help young girls and women cope with the emotional and mental pressures that occur in everyday life.