What effect can social networks have on the mental health of younger generations? While some of the consequences of inappropriate social media use on the physical health of children are now known, it is difficult to assess the damage they can have on well-being and self-esteem.
This, however, is what worries more and more parents, some of whom are starting to feel overwhelmed by the phenomenon, as revealed by a new study conducted in the United States.
Widely considered to be one of the major public health issues of our times, along with sedentary lifestyles, mental health is currently the focus of much scientific research, as well as new prevention strategies.
This is especially the case when it comes to the mental health of children and adolescents, which has deteriorated considerably since the Covid-19 pandemic.
In fact, one in seven young people aged 10 to 19 (14%) experience mental health conditions, according to data published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2021
But does the pandemic alone explain this deterioration in the mental health of young people? Not according to the children’s parents.
According to a study conducted in the United States, they believe that social networks play a major role in affecting the well-being of their children.
An impact on self-esteem
Conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of The On Our Sleeves Movement For Children’s Mental Health, the survey* reports the concern felt among the majority of parents about the role social networks play in the development of mental disorders in young people.
Half of the parents of children under 18 years of age surveyed consider that the mental health of their child(ren) has deteriorated over the last 12 months because of social media.
Moreover, the number of parents who feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with their children is down, dropping from 91% in 2022 to just 86% in 2023.
The study also found that more than two-thirds of parents surveyed (69%) believe that image editing applications and filters popular on social media have a negative impact on their children’s body image – or self-esteem.
The majority of parents also agree (65%) that appearance-related topics on social media, such as dieting and exercise, have a negative impact on the body image of younger generations – those under 18 years old.
“A child’s feelings about their body can affect their mental health. We know that social media can affect everything from purchasing choices to perception of beauty, and unfortunately children are the most vulnerable to unrealistic body image expectations set by these platforms.
“Children on social media can be exposed to thousands of messages every day about how to look, what to do, and who to be,” explains Dr Erin McTiernan, a paediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital, and a regular collaborator with The On Our Sleeves Movement, quoted in a news release.
The importance of communication
The survey highlights some positive aspects of social media, whether in terms of communication, information, solidarity, or the fight against loneliness and isolation, but these seem to be increasingly overshadowed by more harmful effects.
Barely more than a third of Americans (35%) now say that social media has a positive influence on children’s mental health, compared to 43% in 2022. This is despite the fact that various safety measures are now in place on some of these platforms.
“This is a positive step, but parents can’t trust that this is enough. Social media has the ability to increase anxiety and depression in children when used inappropriately, as well as potentially open them up to inappropriate sharing, hurtful language, bullying and more,” explains Dr Ariana Hoet, clinical director of On Our Sleeves and a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
The health professionals working with this movement, which advocates for children's mental health, encourage parents to talk to their children. Specifically, they recommend talking about their children’s favourite content, channels or influencers, developing a plan to manage their online time in advance, and talking about good practices to adopt on social networks.
In addition, this involves warning children about the potential dangers they may face on these platforms, or reassuring them that they can ask for help from an adult if they have a problem.
“Be curious about what your child is doing on social media. Taking an active role in their social media engagement, instead of simply limiting their exposure, can help them feel comfortable to ask questions, report concerns and seek help when they need it,” says Dr Hoet. – AFP Relaxnews
*The survey was conducted online in the US by The Harris Poll on behalf of On Our Sleeves from March 30 to April 3, 2023, among 2,035 US adults age 18 and older, including 711 parents of children under age 18.