Youth, mental health and the perils of social media

In a selfie-driven medium, unreal worlds are created that can have profound influence on impressionable and vulnerable people

A major study among youths carried out by the Richmond Foundation has provided a much-needed snapshot of the mental health issues afflicting this cohort.

The study focused on young people aged between 13 and mid-20s and is the first of its kind to provide evidence-based data that will surely help policy makers.

Teenagers and young adults polled by Richmond have reported feelings of anxiety, sadness, and depression. The importance of such findings cannot be underestimated.

Unfortunately, mental health is still afflicted by societal stigmas. Former MP Mario Galea could not have said it better when addressing a mental health conference organised by the Labour Party during the election: “It’s easier to speak about a toothache, than a broken heart.”

In a disarmingly honest speech about his personal battles with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, Galea had appealed to his audience to be more receptive to the silent struggles of sufferers.

That same message was relayed by President George Vella when reflecting on the Richmond study findings that showed how youths’ happiness and wellbeing were directly related to the support received primarily from their families followed by their friends. “I urge parents and guardians to be equipped with means and tools to be able to ensure that the teens and young adults in their care feel truly supported and understood,” Vella said.

He emphasised the need to impress on our youth the importance of understanding that it is okay not to be okay all the time. But the President also expressed concern at the fact that a stark majority of respondents said they rely on social media for advice on their issues.

Apart from the obvious problems associated with misinformation that is often peddled as fact, social media has created a virtual parallel society with its own expectations and pressures. In a selfie-driven medium, unreal worlds are created that can have profound influence on impressionable and vulnerable people.

The Richmond survey revealed interesting data on how young people feel about being on social media, and the continuous sense of needing to be present online. Almost one in every three – 30% - said they have experienced feeling miserable about themselves and what they have achieved when they compare themselves to others on social media.

The data shows that 35.5% of girls experienced “fear of missing out” (FOMO) quite often, and equally 36% of girls felt miserable when they compared themselves to their peers online.

FOMO-related concerns are especially prevalent among 16-year-old girls: 51% of them reported fear of missing out very often. The data underscores the perils associated with social media, which cannot be ignored.

Support services, including parents and guardians, need to be equipped to deal with these issues. But this is not just a question of fighting the fire after it starts. Young people need to be equipped from a very early age with the skills to be able to decipher the information overload coming their way, whether this is in the form of posed selfies in picture-perfect environments posted in Instagram or opinions expressed on a friend’s Facebook wall.

The ability to deconstruct information is an important tool to manage expectations and peer pressure. It is very easy to overlook the needs of this age cohort and write off their concerns as natural processes of change that are to be expected. But doing so ignores a reality that has been laid down in front of us in black and white.

The underlying message from the Richmond study is the need to strengthen mental health services for young people and this has to include a thorough understanding of the perils associated with social media.