It’s not uncommon to see headlines about how social media is bad for mental health – but it isn’t fair to suggest that it’s the sole cause of things like mental health problems or bullying, or realistic to say the only solution is for young people to avoid it altogether.
When mental health charity Place2Be asked young people what they wanted their schools to know, one of the topics that came up was social media. Young people said:
‘Stop making out like social media is responsible for all of our problems. We know there are challenges with social media, but when we use it carefully it can help us connect with friends and find advice and support when we’re struggling.’
Recognise the benefits
First things first, there can be benefits to healthy social media use – it’s why so many of us use it in the first place!
Apps like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram allow us to connect with people with similar interests (like a specific musician, band, or TV show), even if they live far away. They also let us share things like art and funny videos, which can boost our mood – and they give experts like Antonio Ferreira and Dr Julie new ways to share information with a wide audience.
Some apps, like Snapchat, also allow us to keep in touch with friends and family throughout the day.
This can be great for people’s mental health – thanks to social media, we can be better connected, better informed, and better entertained. At the same time, in certain situations and without careful use, social media can be bad for mental health, and it can have a negative effect on people’s wellbeing.
Recognise what’s not working
If you use social media, it can be helpful to regularly check in with yourself and be honest about whether it’s having a negative effect on your mood or other aspects of your wellbeing (like how much you worry or how much sleep you’re getting). Everyone has different experiences, but we know there are some common side-effects to social media use.
Firstly, it’s really easy to compare yourself and your life to what you see on screen. Even when we know that photos are often filtered, and that people only share glimpses and highlights of their full lives, it can still affect our mood and how we feel about ourselves.
Apps are also designed to keep you scrolling – their algorithms (the processes or rules that control which content you see) are designed to show you content that’ll suck you in, and features like infinite scrolling and frequent notifications are also there to keep you engaged. This can have an impact on your mood, but it can also get in the way of other important parts of life, like spending time with the people you care about, getting work done, and even sleeping.
It’s also important to make sure that you’re getting information from reliable sources, for example, YouTube channels that have been verified from trusted source (including the Best For You YouTube channel).
Find your own boundaries
When you recognise the challenges that come with social media, you can adapt your approach to find something that works for you. There are practical steps you can take so you can make the most of the benefits of social media while minimising any negative effects.
Firstly, it’s a good idea to be aware of what to do if you see something upsetting or worrying. You can read a blog with Dr Ritu Mitra, a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, about what to do if you come across distressing content online.
It’s also useful to make sure you’re protecting screen-free time to relax in other ways, see friends, and sleep. If you’re struggling to keep on top of your screen time (or spending ages scrolling on a particular app), Apple phones have Screen Time to help you manage your phone use, while Android phone have Digital Wellbeing, which you can use to keep track and set limits.
Once you’ve set yourself some boundaries about how often and how much you want to be online, it can be helpful to check in with the way different content affects your mood and thoughts. Next time you’re scrolling, keep checking in with yourself to see which posts make you feel happy, hopeful, or encouraged – and whether any leave you feeling down about yourself or stressed out. Would it improve your online experience to unfollow (or mute) certain accounts if their content isn’t good for your wellbeing? On some apps, such as Instagram, you can also adjust your topic preferences to avoid ads about certain topics (like diets and weight loss, for example).
Posting about mental health
Lots of people use social media to talk about mental health. Done carefully, it can be an amazing way to increase awareness, challenge stereotypes, and help people access support. If you’re talking (or viewing content) about mental health, there are a few helpful things to keep in mind.
Firstly, it’s a good idea to ask yourself why you’re posting or engaging with content. Are you looking to raise awareness or learn from a reliable source, or are you looking for support, for example? How is it making you feel? What sort of an effect might the content be having on other people?
You could also think about the most helpful place to have these conversations. Many organisations provide specific online spaces for talking about wellbeing and mental health, where everyone agrees to post in a supportive, helpful way. If you’re under 18, you could try Kooth (ages 11 to 25) or The Mix discussion boards (ages 13 to 25), while Mind has an online community called Side by Side for people over 18. Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, has separate message boards for young people, adults, and people supporting someone else with an eating disorder.
Samaritans has worked with young people with lived experience to create a range of resources that help young people post about self-harm and suicide safely. Their content includes specific support for people who want to share their personal experiences or remember friends or family who have died by suicide.
Places to get support
If you’re concerned about how you’re using social media, or want to talk about something you’ve seen, support is available.
If you need urgent support, contact one of the organisations on the Get help now page.
You can always text NATTER to 85258 to text with a trained volunteer – it’s free and confidential. For more information, you can read answers to some commonly asked questions about texting NATTER.