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.