Is social media causing childhood depression?

From BBC - February 9, 2018

Rangan Chatterjee is a GP and says he has seen plenty of evidence of the link between mental ill-health in youngsters and their use of social media.

One 16 year-old boy was referred to him after he self-harmed and ended up in A&E.

"The first thought was to put him on anti-depressants but I chatted to him and it sounded like his use of social media was having a negative impact on his health."

So Dr Chatterjee suggested a simple solution - the teenager should attempt to wean himself off social media, restricting himself to just an hour before he went to bed. Over the course of a few weeks, he should extend this to two hours at night and two in the morning.

"He reported a significant improvement in his wellbeing and, after six months, I had a letter from his mother saying he was happier at school and integrated into the local community."

That and similar cases have led him to question the role social media plays in the lives of young people.

"Social media is having a negative impact on mental health," he said. "I do think it is a big problem and that we need some rules. How do we educate society to use technology so it helps us rather than harms us?"

He is not alone. A group of US child welfare experts recently wrote to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg urging him to close down Messenger Kids - a messaging app developed for children - saying it was irresponsible to encourage pre-teens to use the platform.

It cited evidence of adolescents reporting severe mood changes because of social media use and girls as young as 10 facing body image issues because of the pictures they are bombarded with on platforms such as Facebook-owned Instagram.

A 2017 study by The Royal Society of Public Health asked 1,500 young people aged 11-25 to track their moods while using the five most popular social media sites.

It suggested Snapchat and Instagram were the most likely to inspire feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. YouTube had the most positive influence.

Seven in 10 said Instagram made them feel worse about body image and half of 14-24-year-olds reported Instagram and Facebook exacerbated feelings of anxiety. Two-thirds said Facebook made cyber-bullying worse.

The study led Shirley Cramer, chief executive of RSPH, to call for three specific changes:

She concluded: "Social media has become a space in which we form and build relationships, shape self-identity, express ourselves and learn about the world around us; it is intrinsically linked to mental health."

Consultant psychiatrist Louise Theodosiou says one of the clearest indications children are spending too long on their phones is their behaviour during a session with a psychiatrist.

"Two or three years ago, it was very unusual for a child to answer their phone or text during an appointment. But now it is common," said the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital doctor.

She has seen a rise in cases where social media is a contributing factor in teenage depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. These problems are often complex and wide-ranging - from excessive use of gaming or social media sites to feelings of inadequacy brought on by a constant bombardment of social media images of other people's lives, to cyber-bullying.

"In the last fortnight I have had two children request extra appointments because of online bullying," Dr Theodosiou told the BBC.

"Some children deliberately lose or break their phones just to end distressing messages."

Teenagers who dare to express alternative views, particularly about "diverse sexuality", open themselves up to the risk of a torrent of abuse on platforms such as Twitter, she says. And online bullying can have a more intense effect than playground taunts.

"At school, any offline bullying would be limited to that environment but on the computer at home it begins to feel like you are being bullied in your own bedroom," said Dr Theodosiou.

What can parents do?


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