On the effects of social media on young people

Moral hazard or moral panic? Is social media warping the fragile minds of our children or is it the end of the atomised individual and the rediscovery of community? Is it a bit of both, and what might be done to improve the mix?

Baroness Floella Benjamin writes of her work on these questions through the APPG on a fit and health childhood, and Norman Lamb MP explains how the Science and Technology select committee is also looking at this.

This interest is perhaps to be feared and welcomed in equal measure. Feared, because the knee jerk response to moral panics tends to be to stop people doing things for their own good, but missing the real target. But welcomed because there is damaging content out there – there are people who don’t cope well with this kind of world, as there were with every previous world, and there is much understanding to be gained that may benefit both individuals and legislators.

Floella writes

The Office for National Statistics (2016) found a clear association between longer time spent on social media and mental health problems. Young people who are heavy users of social media are more likely to report poor mental health, including psychological distress.

Seeing people online leading idealised lives can result in unhelpful comparisons, inadequacy, anxiety, self-consciousness, low self-esteem and the pursuit of perfectionism. Websites which normalise self-harm, eating disorders and the popularity of sites including distressing content such as live streaming of suicides are particularly worrying.

I have a rule of thumb for responding to ‘people doing bad things with technology’ problems – consider the same bad thing being done with yesterday’s technology with which you are familiar. Remember video nasties? It is the act not the tools; the content not the delivery mechanism that are the issues.

And on the association between mental health and social media use, this goes both ways – as Norman writes

However, we should not be too quick to dismiss the potential benefits which young people enjoy from social media as well. It allows people to interact quickly and easily with others regardless of location and can be used for education and to raise awareness of important causes. Help in confronting mental distress is also available online through a number of websites and apps.

Interestingly, research by the University of East Anglia has found that “children in care benefit from the psychological, emotional and social support gained via social media networks…help[ing] maintain healthy and appropriate birth family relationships and friendships, make new connections and ease transitions between placements and into adult independence”.

A report published by the Education Policy Institute also found that the use of social media can help to build up children’s resilience and have a positive impact on mental wellbeing when used in moderation.

I suggest the association found by the ONS may be a case of correlation is not causation

Correlation is not causation

Correlation is not causation, but it is a generous source of confirmation bias. I am wary of where this debate is heading but I am reassured by Norman’s plan (below) to consider the evidence.

…It is clear that for a variety of reasons – both good and bad – social media is here to stay, so there is little use in just highlighting its possible harms. Instead, our challenge as policy makers is to understand the evidence and then to ensure that the reach and influence of these platforms is harnessed in the most positive ways possible.

A growing body of evidence suggests that limiting levels of use could help to protect children from some of the more harmful effects of social media, along with better regulation of social media platforms to ensure they are held accountable for running their sites responsibly. Beyond this, there is also more we can do to empower young people to interact with social media as safely and beneficially as possible. I look forward to presenting concrete recommendations on this when my committee concludes its inquiry.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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  • Malcolm Todd 15th May '18 - 3:55pm

    David Raw
    You make a good point. I certainly used to be much happier; and possibly nicer. Is there a way back, do you think?

  • Clearly any technology has its downsides. Looking at motor vehicles for example do you concentrate on traffic accidents or people’s lives been saved by being whisked to hospital – the transport of food and goods etc. etc. ???

    If I was to propose introducing a technology that killed over 1,500 people a year- you would say ban it immediately – but that is the number who die on our roads. Clearly much can be done to ameliorate the bad aspects of technology and traffic deaths are down in the UK from nearly 8,000 a year in the ’60s. But most people would say that motor vehicles are a positive benefit.

    Much the same moral panic has been spread about all new media and technology – from the theatre, the novel, cinema, radio and TV. i remember much the same being said about TV when i was young! I am not saying don’t be aware of the negative aspects and try to ameliorate them – just try and keep everything in context.

  • David Raw: “It can certainly be argued that LDV has a deleterious affect on mental health.” – and yet every time I look below the line on an LDV article, there you are…

  • Mick Taylor 16th May '18 - 8:48am

    I’ve been much less frazzled since I gave up twitter. I now visit LDV and my blog on Dreamwidth and very occasionally Facebook to see what my children are doing. Social Media is far too time consuming to little purpose. Why don’t LDV readers try to cut down? I stopped twitter for a month in January as an experiment and have never used it since. I don’t even think about it now.
    And yes, there is life beyond Social Media!

  • If only we could turn back time.

    The death of Bridget Driscoll (c. 1851 – 17 August 1896) was the first recorded case of a pedestrian being killed in a collision with a motor car in the United Kingdom.[1][2] As 44-year-old Driscoll, with her teenage daughter May and her friend Elizabeth Murphy, crossed Dolphin Terrace in the grounds of the Crystal Palace in London, Driscoll was struck by a car belonging to the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company that was being used to give demonstration rides.[2] One witness described the car as travelling at “a reckless pace, in fact, like a fire engine”…….

    The jury returned a verdict of “accidental death” after an inquest lasting some six hours. The coroner, Percy Morrison, (Croydon division of Surrey) said he hoped “such a thing would never happen again.” The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents estimate 550,000 people had been killed on UK roads by 2010.[2]


    Of cause there have been attempts in the past to turn back technical inventions.

    One of the more famous and certainly curious decisions at the Second Council of the Lateran in 1139 was a ban on using missile troops against Christians. Specifically, Canon 29 states that:

    We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics from now on.


    Of cause cars still exist and bows where not uninvented, they where merely replaced by firearms. We can bemoan the advent of the tinternet or embrace it but it will exist until something else replaces it. How it is regulated well that is a different question.

  • John Roffey 16th May '18 - 9:30am

    @Mick Taylor

    “I’ve been much less frazzled since I gave up twitter.’ “Why don’t LDV readers try to cut down? I stopped twitter for a month in January as an experiment and have never used it since.”

    I did the same with the same result – and have also found that I have not missed it at all.

  • Twitter is hands down the worst invention of the 21st century.

    Not a fan of what social media is doing to general discourse – amongst all ages, but largely the young. It’s just toxic. Not good for rational thought, and not good for mental health.

  • It doesn’t seem to me that either Floella or Norman have said anything very startling. Spending ages tied to a device reduces face-to-face socialisation and contact with nature, with negative effects on mental health. But someone quite isolated can find contacts and someone who thought their characteristics make them a freak can find like spirits – and both of these come with dangers. Social media can fill out your education, but are high-risk in terms of rubbish information. If we extend it from social media to the internet in general, the amount of helpful or interesting information that becomes available is awe-inspiring, but the ease of activity encourages a culture of immediacy – I want to react now, I want the thing now – which is bad for reflection and taking the long term into consideration.

    However, what about the negative effects on older people? I’m sure social media contribute to a cofused state where the mind is flooded with information – noise – and the natural reaction to this is fear and aggression, which goes a long way to explaining some political trends. But young people on average cope with the flood of information and stimuli better than older people – hence their more positive political profile.

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