By Harry Easton
Young people are now growing up ‘online’, and social media is playing a role in how they develop. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube provide access to infinite streams of content, but is it contributing to high levels of stress on young people?
Conviction Group is investigating practices that can improve the mental wellbeing of young people, and this month focused specifically on the use of social media amongst teenagers.
“There is an over representation of idealised imagery on social media,” says Dr. Jason Pace, a psychiatrist and Chairperson of Conviction Group.
“From my clinical work, my sense is social media is contributing to pressure on both men and women to have unrealistic physical attributes.”
Conviction Group's programs targets young people in late high school, who according to Australian market research company Roy Morgan, fall in the category of ‘Generation Z’; those born between 1990 and 2005.
In a study Published by Roy Morgan in April 2020, more than 25,000 Australians were surveyed on their social media and analysed by generation groups, from ‘Pre-Boomers’ (born before 1946) to Generation Alpha (born after 2005).
The generation with the highest use of YouTube and Instagram was Generation Z, with 91% of those in this generation using YouTube and 69% using Instagram.
Roy Morgan, 2020
Conviction Group CEO Marco Capobianco says the charity’s work with high schools across Sydney has highlighted some worrying trends associated with young people’s use of social media.
“We are finding social media is changing the way some young people build self-worth. Rather than building self-worth through a personal endeavour, young people are becoming increasingly drawn to feeling good about themselves by the amount of ‘likes’ or ‘followers’ they have.”
“Consequently, finding self-worth on social media becomes very challenging when you can always strive for more followers and may feel pressure to attain more followers by portraying a certain persona.’
According to Dr Pace, many young people develop mentally by individualising and separating themselves from the family unit, with social media heavily influencing this process.
“Before social media, mostly people would turn to their peers, to their friends and would see what their values are and what they’re doing. They’d be influenced pretty heavily be their friends,” says Dr Pace.
“And this continues to be true, but now young people also have access to “peers” online via bloggers, vloggers, youtubers and influencers, so many of their media influencers appear to be living amazing lives setting unrealistic pressures on young people.”
Dr Jacqui Taylor-Jackson, Professor of Cyberpsychology at Western Sydney University, agrees that social comparison can set unrealistic expectations from the perspective of young people.
“The news and images posted on social media is usually the best version of self and often is edited using filters or Photoshop,” says Dr Taylor-Jackson.
“Research has shown that the process of upward social comparison can be associated with lower levels of self-esteem, anxiety, depression and issues with body image.”
Social media presents an infinite amount of content for users to consume, and it is for this reason that Dr Pace worries about what expectations young people are adopting into their life.
“The bigger picture is there’s too much choice,” says Dr Pace. “And choice, or over choice, is something that in society in general even without social media is causing a lot of anxiety.
Speaking in a video Q/A to Conviction Group CEO Marco Capobianco, Dr Jason presented an insightful analogy based on choices presented by social media.
Dr Taylor-Jackson believes this variety of choice contributes to one of the buzz words of the 21st century; FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
“The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) has become a very real perception and due to the huge number of posts, topics and people to follow, many individuals can experience FOMO and can become anxious.”
“To avoid FOMO, many individuals become overloaded and spend huge amounts of time online and it’s very easy for them to become addicted to social media.”
Dr Richelle Mayshak from the School of Psychology at Deakin University also highlights the risk FOMO has on levels of anxiety in young people.
“One recent study suggests that a particular vulnerability for young people is the fear of missing out (1), and when tied with loneliness this can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with needing to measure up to the images and activities presented by others.”
However, Dr Mayshak says studies don’t conclusively prove that social media is responsible for a rise in depression among young people.
“What the research tells us is that the amount of time spent on social media, the type of activity engaged in (for example selfies versus in depth conversations), a young person’s investment in their social media profile, and the presentation of compulsive or addictive behaviours all correlate with higher levels of depression and anxiety(2) .
“So while there is a link between social media use and depression and anxiety, we don’t know which came first.”
However, all three academics argued that social media also presents positive implications for the mental health of young people.
“Research has shown associations between social media use and better social connectedness, higher self-esteem and less loneliness,” says Dr Taylor-Jackson.
“Positive effects are shown when users actively engage with social media, like replying to others, messaging individuals and posting updates. Individuals who use social media in a passive way, like lurking, scrolling, viewing but not commenting, are more likely to experience negative effects.”
Dr Pace points to the positive influence social media has had on improving communication between people separated by long distances.
“When interacting with others in a measured way, social media can connect people that would otherwise be difficult to connect with, due to being overseas or interstate,” says Dr Pace.
“Health care and health information can also be provided via social media and as long as you access good quality media, this can be very helpful.”
To improve young people’s overall experience on social media, Dr Mayshak offers some helpful tips.
“If young people learn to curate their own feed and friend lists and only consume content from positive sources, then the risks of developing negative mental health outcomes are reduced (4).”
“Increasing social connection, even just the perception of social connection with others, has been shown to decrease depressive symptoms, so if young people can be mindful of who they’re interacting with online, and how they’re using social media then it can be a positive use of time.”
Whether we like it or not, social media is a part of our society now, and it’s up to all of us as individuals to be mindful of how we use it.
Through our continuing efforts to educate young people on the importance of mental wellbeing, Conviction Group hopes to foster a generational shift that sees young people take greater responsibility for their personal health.