A new national campaign urging us all to spend less time on our phones has been prompted by widespread mental health issues among young people. Georgette McCready talks to two support charities about what can be done to help

The internet, created to bring humans closer together and to improve our communication with each other, has thrown up an unfortunate side effect – a rise in the number of people suffering from mental health issues as a result of their online lives. British comedian Russell Kane has publicly, and bravely, spoken recently about receiving counselling to tackle his addiction to social media. He said his compulsive behaviour was affecting his life and likened the lure and addictive nature of social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook to the drug cocaine.

Cases such as these are not rare – so great is our addiction to digital technology that the Royal Society for Public Health has felt it necessary to launch a campaign called Scroll-Free September which is advising us to take a break from social media for the 30 days of September. Even if we feel unable to refrain for an entire month the Society invites us to consider and ration the number of times we check our phones each day. For some professionals, that call to wean ourselves away our phones comes far too late after the genie has left the bottle.

Jan Robertson is the chief executive and founder of the charity Focus Counselling. “We have been talking about this issue for the past five years,” she says. “It’s only been in the last academic year that schools have really started to tackle this problem. And it really is a widespread problem.”

So, beyond spending too much time peering into their screens, what harm is using social media doing to our 11 to 18-year-olds, I ask Jan? “It’s causing massive amounts of anxiety. We’re dealing with many cases of young people suffering from it. It blights their lives and can lead to panic attacks, depression, self-harm – a whole range of issues.”

Focus Counselling sees more than 100 clients of all ages per week and many of them are suffering from low self-esteem and from a range of anxiety-related symptoms. Jan says a typical case of social media bullying might begin with a teenager posting an innocent bikini-clad holiday photo on Snapchat to share with friends. But, once in the hands of someone else with malevolent intent, that image can be manipulated and distributed in such a way that the original subject feels exposed and belittled. “Cyber bullying is rife and deeply unpleasant,” Jan says. “They will attack everything about you, from your hair and the way you dress, to your parents and the way you talk. And we can’t simply suggest that someone turns their phone off and ignore it, it’s much more invidious than that.”

She explained that users of social media – regardless of age or which platform they’re using – get a buzz of endorphin for every like, follow or share. It is a very human response to crave validation from others. We all want to be popular and liked. The problem is when that becomes addictive or when people on these platforms use abusive or inappropriate behaviour. It is also common for people try and show that they are living idyllic, happy lives through carefully posed images, which creates unrealistic expectations of life and what it actually is, for those viewing their posts.

We asked John McGuire, a therapist with Bristol-based charity Off the Record, for his experience of helping young people in this area.

Q: Is it fair to say that you have seen a rise in recent years of cases of anxiety in young people, directly caused by their use of social media?
A: I think we need to be cautious about measuring the impact of social networking on young people, and certainly more research is required. OTR now reaches and supports more young people than ever before, and social media is certainly a big part of many of those young people’s lives, but distress and anxieties are often complex and can’t be attributed solely to one aspect of their lives.

Q: Would the problems arising from social media be because of its addictive nature, its unrealistic expectations or cyber bullying?
A: I think social media raises many new avenues for young people to navigate. Certainly there is lots of evidence to indicate the potentially addictive nature of social networking – a study from Harvard University showed that self-disclosure online fires up a part of the brain that also lights up when taking an addictive substance, like cocaine. In terms of unrealistic expectations, social media replicates the same dynamics that advertising and marketing have done for many decades now, though with social networking this now extends much further into the home space. Cyber-bullying has been shown to be harmful, though again more research is required, as some suggests it is not as harmful as we may think. OTR is interested in another avenue which isn’t regularly explored – how social media is often used as a substitute for meeting a young person’s social interaction needs which may be denied them in the real world with the breakdown of local communities. Whereas before, during my childhood, I would play with kids down the local field, now kids the same age are playing with each other online via online gaming and social media. The impact of this remains to be seen.

Q: Aside from seeking help and counselling, do you have any advice on how to minimise the impact of social media?
A: I think we need to be cautious. If young people are using social media to meet social needs that are now difficult to meet in the real world, taking social media away may not be the most useful approach, as these sites and tools give young people a chance to interact and stay in touch. That being said, different online tools, like parental controls, are important in filtering out potentially explicit content, or limiting a young person’s access to social networking to a certain number of hours a day.

Q: Are local schools doing anything to tackle this issue?
A: OTR works with many Bristol schools and the approaches differ. Our wellbeing practitioners go into schools to give information and support on a wide number of subjects important to young people – including social media, sleep hygiene and managing difficult feelings and transitions. Social media can bring many useful things to a young person’s life, including the ability to stay in touch with school/university friends as well as encounter a wider bandwidth of difference, like young people from other countries and backgrounds. Social networking brings with it costs and benefits. For sure, its addictive nature is a concern, from my perspective, and this demands networking platforms take a more responsible approach, which they seem to be doing recently, but more needs to be done.

Jan Robertson and her team of counsellors believe that Instagram and Snapchat, being image-based platforms, are potentially the most damaging for young people’s self image and esteem. Jan, who has many years of experience and is a parent herself, also believes that television shows which show young men and women with improbably perfect figures and faces also engender feelings of inadequacy in their followers. “The cult of celebrity can be very damaging for young people, trying to match up to a so-called perfect life,” she observes. “It is worth bearing in mind that every post we put on the internet leaves an indelible footprint that others will be able to trace, so be wary of posting anything which might come back to haunt you. As a general rule,” says Jan, “keep it light when it comes to your virtual life.”

Focus Counselling is working with schools in the South West to teach children as young as 11 how to be savvy about the internet. They will also be working with teachers to help them cope with the issues arising from social media habits. Currently most schools find it impractical to separate students from their phones during the school day, but instead allow them free use at break times.

SIGNS A YOUNG PERSON IS BEING NEGATIVELY AFFECTED BY SOCIAL MEDIA
• They become withdrawn
• They need their phone with them all the time
• They behave out of character, perhaps opting out of meals or avoiding seeing friends
HOW CAN PARENTS/CARERS HELP?
• Set a good example. Don’t spend all your time looking at your own phone.
• Insist the whole family leave their phones in the kitchen overnight to prevent online bullying intruding into sleep time.
• Leave it as long as you can before you give in to demands to have social media accounts or a phone of their own.
• Make family meals a regular occurrence, so people can talk to each other. Nobody need have their phone with them while they’re eating.
• Learn how social media works. It’s not going to go away, so start your own Instagram or Facebook account. Like any tool, it can be useful. It’s also a useful way of showing your child that you understand a little of how their world works.
• Encourage your family to use WhatsApp. It’s free, it’s private and you can form your own family or friendship groups.

Off the Record in Bristol offers mental health and support for 11 to 25-year-olds in Bristol and South Gloucestershire. Its website is a good place to start when seeking help. You can get in touch with Focus Counselling on 01225 330096