Collette Isabel Stadler: Childhood and adolescent anxiety and social media

Recently the NSPCC revealed that it had counselled 11,706 young people for anxiety in 2015-2016 via its Childline telephone counselling services—a 35% rise from the previous year. Most shockingly, a child in distress telephones Childline every thirty minutes to talk about feelings of suicide.

The first academic studies investigating the growing problem of childhood and adolescent mental health problems date back to the beginning of the millennium and laid bare a worrying trend. At the time a number of potential causes that might be driving this phenomenon were put forward, but none managed to fully explain the observations. Fast forward 10 to 15 years and the state of adolescent mental health problems has reached epidemic proportions. Almost 300,000 young people in Britain now have a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

Ask “the man on the street” what he thinks is behind this development and chances are he’s quick to vilify the emergence of social media. “An easy scapegoat!” you might retort. “An oversimplification of the problem!” a social scientist might object. And clearly the origins of this crisis do not lie in social media; adolescence has been an angst-provoking period long before it was possible to post one’s #frappewiththebestie on social media. However the rapid deterioration of youth mental health statistics and the contemporaneous explosion of social media over the past decade are certainly not a coincidence. Thus, a growing number of academics and healthcare professionals have started to actively investigate how the culture within social media and the way young people use it, is affecting their mental health.

Childline hypothesise that young people are struggling with the “demands of the modern world” and attribute some of this to social media. “The way that they are using social media is placing increasing pressure on them to attain a perfect life, which is completely unrealistic and ultimately making them anxious about their place in the world”—says one Childline representative.

Indeed, plenty of research supports the hypothesis that social media and our online lives can exacerbate and even cause low mood and increased symptoms of depression; an effect that is not just limited to young people.

Facebook’s famous—albeit controversial (due to lack of consumer consent)—experiment in 2014, where the company changed the “newsfeeds” of some of its users’ accounts to spread happiness or unhappiness, demonstrated the power of influence it can exert on our emotions. It showed that social media websites can make us feel as though everyone else is eating better foods, hanging out with cooler people, and going on better holidays than we are. The curated lives displayed online can make anyone who’s already feeling slightly vulnerable feel worse simply through the power of comparison.

And so, while the process of growing up has always been a trialling time, it seems that the level of insecurity and associated anxiety amongst our UK teens has spun out of control. 1 in 4 of our youngsters in the UK have reported experiencing overwhelming emotions and suicidal thoughts.

The weltschmerz of an adolescent has traditionally been the inner turmoil of Adrian Mole, as laid bare in his diaries. It is the uncertain, narcissistic angst of a youngster taking stock of the world around him as he undergoes a daunting physical transition, fuelled by an explosion of androgens, spots, overbearing adults, school bullies, and unrequited love. Previously such suffering found an outlet through some quiet tears sobbed into a pillow, the ability to confide in a supportive parent, or an entry into a (pen and paper) diary; but on the whole their lives carried on, relatively privately and without the scrutiny imposed by the daily requirement of a “status update.”

In part the ability to cope with the pressures of puberty came from the assumption and knowledge that teenagers around the world were going through the exact same trials and tribulations in all their self-deprecating, self-doubting, and Clearasil-filled dimensions.

Today those same bedrooms are filled with technology connected to the world wide web, and chances are that one’s moment of quiet catharsis is interrupted by a notification alerting you to the latest “selfie from paradise” posted by a classmate or colleague and adorned with requisite amount of hashtags.

And thus the visceral juxtaposition of your moment of ennui to their moment of seeming perfectness gives real and personal meaning to Teddy Roosevelt’s apocryphal realisation of “comparison as the thief of joy.”

Most of us only post the curated versions of our lives; then ensues the difficulties of establishing a line between reality and fiction. The version we yearn for and the quotidian monotony that is. This blurring of reality fuels the millennials’ drive for perfection and the set of online ideals that they think they need to live up to. Their expectations become distorted as they are programmed to believe that everything ought to be perfect all of the time. This, arguably, fuels an intolerance of both their own flaws and the flaws of those around them, leading to emotions such as self-hatred, intolerance, and anger. With this backdrop of subtle rhetoric, it is easy to see why our teens become overwhelmed by negative emotions such as sadness and disappointment. Social media are tacitly informing them that if they do experience such emotions, they are #failingatlife. Something must be wrong with them or their lives because in 2017 everyone’s lives are perfect now . . . aren’t they?

Collette Isabel Stadler is an academic GP ST1 in Cambridge. Her research interests focus on health inequalities, particularly for vulnerable groups of the population. She has a particular interest in the health of looked after children and care leavers. 

Competing interests: None declared.

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  • Tiffany Strode

    This is something that, as youth workers, we deal with on a daily basis….the number of “likes” a young person receives on a post often determines their mood. The drive to be acceptable and “like others” leads to the associated opening up of oneself to be commented on by all and sundry…..

  • Kurt Stadler

    A very thoughtful text on how social media can, not necessarily must, increase the feeling of being imperfect in the minds of adolescents, finally leading to serious and life threatening mental health problems.

  • Katherine Read

    Adolescence was hard enough without adding the pressure of not only projecting perfection but being reached 24/7 via social media and mobile phones. Like most adults I have periods of feeling like everyone’s life is so much better than mine but have the experience and insight to realise that it’s a projection of a distorted reality. What worries me is with many more families experiencing difficulties so resilience is lowered, and increased calls to these charities that are providing the majority of support thanks to cuts in mental health – what happens when they reach saturation point?

  • Miranda Jefferies

    Worrying patterns. Delivery of effective prevention as well as timely psychological intervention to our future generation should thus be a high priority.

  • Sylvia Demsteader

    The information in this BMJ blog by Collette Isabel Stadler is a wake up call to a sleepy agenda, for social, educational, medical and political realms. The statistics are concerning. When is acknowledgement and action going to be taken seriously in working with the anxious young. Insecure needy teenagers could become insecure needy adults? The information presents a valid , yet different side to the group of teenagers that can be seen laughing together on the bus for example. What lies beneath , in their fears and worries? They do not usually think and work things out in the same way as adults do? What research will go into the differences and level of anxiety between social classes? Will adolescents find their own supposed escape in drug use ? How much are the NHS and mental health charities contributing to the needs of the anxious young? This blog encouraged me to revisit and reconsider a lot around this subject area.

  • Rachel Taylor

    An interesting and informative explanation as to why this phenomenon is happening. If only we knew how to protect our children from these effects.

  • Alejandro GarcdelaG

    Great article! With the way social media affects us as adults, I can only imagine the exponential effect it has on younger people. And what Dr. Stadler says, that we only present a curated version of our lives, is very true. Reminds me of a quote I read the other day on how we tend to feel so insecure because we compare other people’s highlight reels with our own behind-the-scenes.

  • Joyce Poon

    A very insightful article on how our youth are affected by this modern world today. We, as health professionals, need to be made aware of this and take the anxieties of our young patients seriously.

  • Amy McNamee

    “The curated lives displayed online can make anyone who’s already feeling slightly vulnerable feel worse simply through the power of comparison.”
    Spot on!

  • Christine Hughes

    There are a myriad of pertinent points that I agree with in this article! One thing I believe the younger generation is particularly susceptible to, is the feeling that they are better connected to the outside world through social media. In some ways, they might feel like they are broadening their horizons by seeing what others are getting up to. However, in reality, they are just soaking up the most flattering/enviable appearances of their peers. They live under false pretenses…narrowing their view of the world – and at a young age, if this is all you know, it IS your world. No wonder the anxiety levels are soaring more than before. I feel there is a true correlation. This is a thought-provoking article!

  • Jenni Jones

    A very interesting read. I feel very relieved that I did not grow up in the time of social media and the complications it brings to an already very difficult time.

  • Georgina Collins

    There seems to be a growing body of evidence to suggest that social media ‘breaks’ can reduce stress levels – my personal experience of a 4-month break from all forms of social media was definitely a positive one, but after I returned to it…I now check my Facebook page way too much, and I use my time much less productively! Should we have social media rehab centres?

  • Doralee Hutchinson

    A good piece. I feel a lot of support needs direction towards parents and guardians in helping these young people through these challenges and not simply relying on services to do it.

  • pfung27

    A really engaging read, thought-provoking and insightful.

  • Jules Everett

    A very succinct commentary on the matter. The school of thought here seems closely aligned with the findings of Daniel Eisenberg and Sherry Holladay here in the US.

  • Sally Hall

    This is an important subject for discussion in terms of young people’s mental health – not only the pressure caused by curated versions of people’s lives but also in terms of what young people are NOT doing while they are glued to their screens – spending time with families, getting active outdoors, or even using a pen and paper diary to explore their feelings. Thanks for raising the issue.

  • SB

    Interesting – given it is difficult to roll back on technology use, what would your proposed solutions be?

  • Cini Bhanu

    An interesting and insightful article. With such a great influence – is there a way to use the power of social media more positively for young people? Perhaps this is the next step?

  • Claire C

    Great piece
    – in addition to posting curated versions of oneself, instantly publishable photos and comments provide easy fodder for bullying, with jibes and jokes widely and rapidly broadcast. – what happens to the victims – a sense of futility and paranoid monitoring of posts?

  • Laura Aruparayil

    Thank you so much for this challenging article Collette. Today’s teens can struggle to find and accept the time needed to process emotions and problem solve prior to presenting who they are or what they believe to the world. I wonder how we can best empower our young people to understand that the social media voices are not what defines them? To understand that they can manage their social media, and not that the social media is managing them? The statistics in this article are tragic-I wonder who is in the best place to intervene with children in the upcoming generations particularly? Parents, carers and schools? By the time we are dealing with severe mental health issues potentially years of thriving and flourishing as a young person have been missed or damaged, which of course may have lifelong implications. It seems that the charities, activities and studentships etc which evidence to young people that they are valued, important and have a role in the world have some success in this area. Helping children and young people to support and champion a cause greater than themselves (usually as part of a community of some form) helps them to develop their ‘place in the world’ and prioritise the voices around them. Whilst in no way assuming there is some quick fix to such complex problems, it may be that though it’s hard to quiet the social media, perhaps we could work on ensuring other, and ‘healthier’ voices speak louder?

  • Sarah Bernardes

    Working in the front line with many children with Mental Heath issues, I can definitely see a rise in the issue. Dr Stadler’s recognition of the strain on CAMHS meaning fewer children are seen by specialists is distressingly accurate. Most of the children I see are keen to accept help but the devastating blow to their self esteem when they’re told they don’t deserve it is a severe issue in this country. Thank you Dr Stadler for raising these crucial issues.