“If Instagram is such a positive force, have we seen a golden age of teenage mental health in the last 10 years? No, we have seen escalating rates of suicide and depression amongst teenagers,” she continued. “There’s a broad swath of research that supports the idea that the usage of social media amplifies the risk of these mental health harms.” These were the words of Frances Haugen, Facebook’s whistleblower testifying during a Senate Committee this week, just a few days before World Mental Health Day.
Mental health care for all: let’s make it a reality, is a theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day celebrated on 10th October, supported by the World Health Organisation. After 20 months and three waves of a pandemic, lockdowns and school and business interruptions, the task is as daunting this year as perhaps any before it.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) notes that nine percent of all teenage deaths are by suicide, adding that suicide is the second leading and fastest-growing cause of death among young South Africans in the 15-25 age group.
Cassey Chambers, SADAG’s Operations Director, says 90 percent of adolescents who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness – frequently, depression. While some people do have a genetic tendency towards depression, others develop it as a result of loneliness, social isolation, bullying, loss, abuse, and conflict. There are additional contributors that this generation is contending with – the increased exposure to the news at an earlier age and the tendency to ‘doomscroll’ on social media or compare their life to others.
The first detailed study of how social media affects the mental health of young users. has found that increased participation in social media networks, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp and others, is associated with increased psychological distress. With the effects almost twice as severe among girls.
How to help teens manage their mental health
We are seeing the effects of social media first-hand when we engage with teens and tweens about their online life during our 8-lesson in-school program.
“Students tell us about the pressure they feel around life online, and many agree that it can bend their character or values, leading to inappropriate or out of character behaviour,” says Dean McCoubrey, our founder – we also train parents, teachers and psychologists to help children feel safer and behave smarter online.
“This age group is not adequately equipped to manage the complexity of the varied risks, temptations and dangers online. When parents and teachers understand the development stages of kids and how these devices and platforms influence their neurochemistry at this vulnerable and immature stage, we can all start to grasp why this is happening,” he says. “Mental health is affected when we fail to have enough ‘in person’ contact, secondly a lack of exercise and thirdly repetitive thought patterns that are negative media exposure, known as doomscrolling. The gradual erosion of self-esteem that teens end up with, after comparing themselves to their peers highlight reels and the mental fatigue from cyberbullying or online intimidation also play a role.”
The role of education
Education will have to play a bigger role in making mental health care a reality for teens and tweens. The detrimental effects of social media can be reduced by also adding in the training of parents, teachers and school counsellors. We created four programs, and not just a student program, because all the adults in the chain of care have to contribute. Not enough people understand the complexity of how humans react and respond to social media, and what the consequences are, especially because teens can keep things quite hushed.
Between 30 and 40% of teens and pre-teens say they cannot share their concerns with their parents, aligning with global data and emphasizing that schools and parents should take children’s social media experiences much more seriously.
It doesn’t help that teens and pre-teens explore the internet without the one-on-one guidance of parents or teachers, and even if filters are applied, they stumble onto content that they’re not yet able to process.
Our program is pro-technology, which is changing the world in so many creative, entertaining, and philanthropic ways, but the fact remains that children need more digital education.
So many kids are so ”social” and yet so many are also feeling alone – it’s the great paradox of social media. We will look back on this time, in a decade or two, and ask why we didn’t prepare our children more carefully and give them the tools to think critically and self-regulate.
World Mental Health Day gives parents and children the opportunity to start conversations about mental illness, emphasising that there is no shame in struggling with mental health while re-establishing those vital real-life connections. With 75 percent of teen suicides having spoken about their intention before proceeding, there’s a strong possibility that parents, teachers and friends that listen carefully to depressed teens may indeed be able to act in time to save a life.