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Youth mental health and social media

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

Let’s talk about youth mental health. According to a study by WHO, it is estimated that approximately 14% of young adults suffer from a series of mental health issues including depression, anxiety and conduct-related disorders worldwide. That is 1 in 7 adolescents that are likely to be affected by mental health issues. Adolescence is one of the key formative years of our lives. Mental health issues among young people have received increasing attention in recent years globally.

What are some of the mental health challenges young people face these days?

In a time of “new normal”, today’s youths are severely deprived of the development that us millennials and baby boomers are used to. Although quality of life has significantly improved for the future generations and beyond, Gen Zs (the category most today’s youths fall under) lack access to healthy social interactions, routine and supervised education that would help facilitate and promote growth, and professional social support from the adult figures in their lives i.e. teachers, school counselors and therapists. The “new normal” has severely disrupted the way we would raise a child, and many youths are left with no choice but to seek solace and information from the internet.

The role that social media plays in youths’ lives

Social media, and by extent of that, the internet is a great way for us to learn about the outside world. And today’s advanced technologies have brought us a step closer to obtaining information and knowledge that were otherwise hard-to-reach for us in our times. Furthermore, social media provides an avenue for youths to have cross-cultural and global interaction with other youths around the world. The presence of an online support is particularly vital for youths who may feel ostracized or alienated in real-life, and creates a protective social cocoon for them to continue growing, if properly regulated of course. With social distancing and the scarcity of social gatherings today, social media helps with combating exclusion and loneliness too.

However, social media comes with its dark side too. Youths who spend long hours browsing on social media are at higher risk of being predisposed to cyberbullying, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), creating a disillusioned perception of reality by having unrealistic views of other people’s lives and peer pressure. In WHO’s words,

“media influence and gender norms can exacerbate the disparity between an adolescent’s lived reality and their perceptions or aspirations for the future.”

Let’s go physical. Youths who spend large amounts of time on social media are at risk of developing disrupted sleep cycles, which leads to insomnia and revenge bedtime procrastination, particularly in cases where prolonged use of social media has led to an unhealthy obsession with it. Irregular sleep schedules and disrupted circadian rhythms have shown to negatively impact a youth’s physical growth and impede hormonal regulation and production. Those who develop BDD are also at risk of cultivating unhealthy eating habits as a way to attain unrealistic body images, which may lead to complicating mental-health issues such as bulimia and anorexia.

Mental disorders posed by social media

It’s important to note that social media isn’t single-handedly causing youths mental health issues. However, unsupervised and poor use of the medium can lead to the discussed conditions above, which puts them at a higher risk of contracting stress, depression and anxiety. Here are several other mental health disorders that may crop up with unhealthy social media use.

Emotional disorders

Apart from stress, depression and anxiety disorders, youth may develop social withdrawal syndrome, which deprives them of healthy human interaction and social growth. Social isolation or withdrawal may lead to loneliness and a low self-esteem, which puts the youth at a risk of subjective cyberbullying and social bullying, leading to the formation of suicidal tendicies and behavior.

Behavioral disorders

Prolonged use of social media can cause youths to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Due to the constant shifting and multitasking nature of social media, youths may find it hard to concentrate in their studies, which results in a dip in academic performance and puts them at risk of being dropouts.

As briefly discussed above, youths who hold distorted views of reality due to the unrealistic portrayal of other people’s lives on social media may cause them to detach from reality and develop dissociative disorders. As this prolongs, youths who eventually grow into adults will find it difficult to integrate to the society due to their disillusioned view of reality.

Eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia also fall under the category and encourage unhealthy habits, all which must be addressed.

Risk-taking behaviors

It is normal for youths to exhibit risk-taking behaviors as a part of the growing-up process. Engaging and exposing to a plethora of behaviors in the form of experimentation can help youth discern between good and bad behaviors, and allow them to reject the unhealthy ones.

However, risk-taking behaviors should be supervised and kept to a minimum. Parents and adult figures should be kept in the know of behaviors such as alcohol and sex, two commonly-concerned topics that youths engage in as a part of the experimentation process.

Youths are also particularly obsessed with the notion of “FOMO” or fear of missing out, which drives them to engage in risky behaviors in an attempt to prove their worth to their peers.

As adults, it can be difficult for us to prevent risk-taking behaviors at all times. However, active communication, being in the know and establishing a trusting relationship with our children or youth siblings can go a long way in mitigating risk-taking behaviors that can lead to life-threatening moments.

Self-harm & suicidal tendencies

As the use of social media grows, so too does the onset of cyberbullying. Today, more youths than ever before have reported feeling depressed, stressed out and anxious as a result of cyberbullying. Unlike physical bullying, it can be difficult for us as parents and adult figures to curb the spread of cyberbullying. However, early knowledge of such episodes can prevent us from intervening at the right time.

Helping youth build a robust and resilient mental health

There are many ways for us to help youths build mental resilience, and they involve habits that we are already practicing in our daily lives.

● Promoting a healthy lifestyle i.e. diet, sleep times, physical regime

● Actively encouraging interaction both within and outside family circles

● Reinforcing positive behaviors such as talking about their feelings and difficulties

● Encouraging self-expression and self-acceptance in terms of body image and emotions

● Encouraging them to try new things (with proper supervision)

● Talking about self-care behaviors i.e. learning when to draw a line with peers if boundaries have

been crossed, the power of saying “No” to people

Acknowledgement and inclusion are both key in cultivating a youth that is mentally resilient and capable of addressing mental health issues, this leads to a youth that is assertive and capable of speaking up when it matters.

Seeking help with behavior gets out of hand

At times, some behaviors tend to get out of control and professional help is needed. Knowing when to intervene and seek help is vital in these moments. If need be, consider the following avenues to go to for support:

● School counselors

● Therapists

● Support hotlines such as Befrienders, Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA)

● Psychological therapists

● Education psychologists

Doing our best to guide the future generation

Adolescence can sometimes be confusing, intimidating and uncertain to a youth. Having the ability to go out and explore things on their own terms will help a youth come to terms with their self-identity and help foster a more assertive and self-assured adult. That being said, the process needs to be explored in a healthy and meaningful manner, and means ensuring our youths are well-protected against the hazards of using social media. With proper education and awareness, social media can be used as a tool to empower youths to make informed decisions that help them attain a fulfilling adolescence, rather than cripple them.

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