Mental Health and Social Media Usage: a Call for Policy and Practice Change

Scarlet Hunt, a final year student, has been undertaking a final year research project around the impacts of social media with young people. She has particularly been looking into the mental impacts of utilising social media. 

New proposals and guidance from the British government for legislation concerning social media usage are welcomed as a mechanism to protect Children and young people, especially concerning protecting young people from on-line bullying and grooming.  However, there are some social media behaviours that impact upon mental health that are not about the illegal; policies and legislation won’t change the situation, but education and support can elevate social stress and reduce immature and anti-social behaviours.

Scarlet Hunt, one of our undergraduate students, recently undertook her final year project by connecting with the Lead Commisioner for Mental Health at Stoke Public Health and local charitable organisation, Mind, to design a research project that could be used for service development and improvement concerning young people’s mental health and social media usage.

” It was evident that young people were using social media all the time.” – Scarlet Hunt conducted research about social media usage and mental health for her final-year research project.

Who did you conduct the research with?

“In order to look into the topic, I conducted focus group interviews within a high school setting. Four interviews, with four separate focus groups of students:  Boys from year 8, girls from year 8, boys from 10, girls from year 10. [So] 26 students at the same school.”

Scarlet was encouraged to connect with local organisations to ensure her research would make a difference.

Who did you connect with in terms of local organisations?

“So, first of all I met with the Lead commissioner for Mental Health at Stoke Public Health, just to talk about the nature of my project and what it would involve and look at. She was really supportive of the project. She really liked it and she also wanted me to include a little bit about self-harming in relation to social media [and] how much sleep young people were getting, and the impact social media could be having on this.

I then spoke to the director of local charity, Mind, who was happy to take referrals from young people who felt they needed extra support after taking part in the research.”

What impact did that have on you going in to schools to conduct the research?

“First of all, it made me feel a lot more confident knowing that the findings from the research project were going to go towards improving local strategy, towards helping the mental wellbeing of young people and improving this. I also felt that the project would give local organisations a bit more knowledge on social media and how this could be affecting young people’s mental health. So it made me feel a lot more confident.”

Scarlet’s research findings point to the negative impact that posting only the best bits of people lives on social media can have upon young and impressionable minds. The impact on young people was particularly an issue when celebrities do this. You can’t put a law out that tells people they can’t only post nice things about themselves, but have to post about the challenges of life too. You can’t prevent people from using filters and edits on pictures to make them look better, but you can teach people about social responsibility in relation to the issues that only posting the best bits of life has and trying to ensure that there is more transparency about life’s challenges. When celebrities keep it real about the challenges of life it helps take the pressure off people feeling they have to strive for perfection. For example, Prince Harry speaking out about his mental health.

Scarlet found that young people wanted guidance on how to navigate the challenges of social media and to look after their mental health. However, they did not want this wisdom to come from teachers, who in their opinion, did not use social media in the same ways as they did. Teachers were perceived as out of date with youth culture. Youth workers have previously been additional ‘neutral’ educators to children and young people and perceived as more socially relevant to the youth of today. However, youth services have had drastic cuts.  

What were the suggestions that young people came up with about how they might improve their mental wellbeing with social media usage?

“Young people said that they would appreciate having sessions on social media and perhaps teaching them ways to use social media in a more healthy way, but they also acknowledged that they would prefer someone a little bit younger to deliver these sessions. They stated that if teachers delivered these sessions that it wouldn’t be as beneficial because teachers don’t use social media in the same way that they do. They stated that to have someone a little bit younger come in who uses social media in the same way they do would be a lot more beneficial than a teacher delivering the session.”

So they almost wanted someone that was a step ahead of them, but that they could connect with socially, to be able to give them information on how to use social media in a positive way for their mental wellbeing?’

“Yes, definitely.”

Scarlet’s research found that young people were having less sleep due to social media and they struggled putting their own boundaries in place due to fear of missing out.  They suggested that social media platforms could stop people using for long periods of time to help address this.  Restrictions to social media platforms could be a potential feature to be included in national policy.  As a parent, I would argue that parents also have a role to play in supporting their children to implement healthy personal boundaries to social media usage.

Mental health issues in young people across the UK are perceived to be at an all-time high. There are lots of contributing factors to this and social media usage is one element of the issue.  Social media can also be used as a tool for good in helping young people get support and information. 

What did you find, in terms of the findings, from the young people you talked with?

“The first thing that was really evident is that young people are using social media all the time. It was the first thing they checked when they woke up and the last thing they check when they go to sleep.

A lot of the participants stated that this was having an impact on how much sleep they were getting, because they were using social media for a prolonged time before they were going to sleep.

In relation to self-harming behaviour, participants felt that social media didn’t really have an impact upon this, but young people would use social media to perhaps upload stories on Instagram and Snapchat, just sort of saying how they were feeling, in order to seek attention from peers and seek support.” 

It is really important that in any new policy direction the voices of young people are heard in order to ensure that the UK policy directive enhances social media application, rather than dictating access to a digital community that can be used to enhance education and knowledge. Young people in Scarlet’s study saw social media as positive, despite the issues they raised.  New policy needs to ensure that it does not demonise social media, or the users of it, including young people. 

In terms of your next steps, you need to report these findings back to the stakeholders you connected with at the beginning?

“Yes, so I am currently putting together a report of the key findings from all of the interviews that I conducted and this will go back to Public Health and Mind, in order to inform them of the findings and recommendations of what we could do in the future to help young people use social media more healthily.”

In terms of you as a student conducting a piece of research in a very professional way, what impact do you think this will have on you in the future?

“I think by linking with local organisations, it will make me feel more confident when I go to job interviews – I will be able to say that I worked with local organisations on this research project and it sounds a little bit better knowing the findings have gone towards something useful, you know, and it wasn’t just purely for my own self-interest.”

Congratulations on the piece of research and we wish you all the best on writing up the report.

~Sarah Page

Sarah Page left (Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology) and Scarlet Hunt (final year student conducting research around social media usage and the impact on young people.

You can watch the full intereview between Sarah Page (Senior Lecturer in Sociology & Criminology) and Scarlet Hunt on YouTube here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About lmw2

Dr Laura Walton-Williams is the Course Leader for the Forensic Investigation Degrees at Staffordshire University. Her research interests focus on Forensic Biology, including DNA analysis, body fluid interpretation, sexual offences and blood pattern interpretation.

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