LUCIO RIBEIRO: Why it's more important than ever that we protect our kids’ mental health on social media

Lucio Ribeiro
The Nightly
5 Min Read
It's more important than ever that we protect our kids' mental health from the perils of social media, writes Lucio Ribeiro.
It's more important than ever that we protect our kids' mental health from the perils of social media, writes Lucio Ribeiro. Credit: The Nightly

In a world where most of our social interactions are happening on social media, we have let the balance between connection and isolation slip away.

Our younger generation’s mental health is suffering and is now at more risk than ever.

While social media was once celebrated for connecting people, it is now being scrutinised for its negative impact on mental well-being.

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The harm caused to our teenagers’ mental health by social media, combined with overwhelming evidence of the negative effects of excessive screen time, is deeply concerning.

I might add this is a widespread global issue. Over the past decade, the percentage of British teenagers who feel unlikable has more than doubled, from 4 per cent to over 8 per cent.

In the US, more high schoolers feel that life lacks meaning, especially those who spend more time on social media than on offline activities, which is linked to poorer psychological health.

In France, the rate of depression among individuals aged 15 to 24 has increased fourfold over the past 10 years.

In Australia, a 2023 poll by YouGov found that 74 per cent of adults in Australia associated social media to be somewhat or completely responsible for a decline in mental health.

A research paper published in 2021 by the Centre for Digital Experience provided a comprehensive overview of the effects of social media on various aspects of society, focusing on mental health and well-being, safety, social cohesion, and the efforts to regulate social media use within Australia and around the world.

“Protecting our youth from the negative effects of social media requires a concerted effort from technology firms, educators, parents, and others.”

It provided a view on the nuanced relationship between social media use and mental health, indicating further increasing negative new forms of abuse and harassment, particularly gender-based violence, and the mixed effects of social media on social cohesion, including both the fostering of civic engagement and the potential for increased polarisation and the spread of misinformation.

The connection between excessive use of social media and various mental health issues, such as severe anxiety, depression, sleep disruption, and decreased self-esteem, has become increasingly prevalent.

These platforms have a captivating appeal, often trapping young users in endless scrolling cycles and exposing them to harmful content and unrealistic depictions of life, distorting their worldview.

Even the design of the platforms, with the prominence of “likes, shares and comments” has a direct impact on a false sense of popularity and acceptance.

A “like” is more than just an action, it is a false sense of acceptance and social currency.

Adolescents are more prone to engaging in behaviours like social comparison and approval-seeking online, which may contribute to loneliness, isolation, and increased negative self-rumination.

Research indicates that teenagers who spend more time on social media are more likely to experience declining mental health.

This experience is particularly acute for girls, who not only spend more time on these platforms than boys but also experience a more significant decrease in mental well-being.

A call to action

The growing concern over social media’s impact on young minds has ended up in the courts a few times.

In November 2023, 41 US states sued Meta for getting teens hooked on social media, and now four Canadian school boards have decided to pursue legal action against the behemoths of social media, seeking compensation for their role in the escalating mental health crisis among students.

These educational institutions are challenging companies like Meta and SnapChat for damages exceeding $4.5 billion, accusing their products of being engineered for addictive use, altering the cognitive and behavioural patterns of children, sparking crises in learning and mental health, and compelling the schools to allocate more resources to support programs.

Protecting our youth from the negative effects of social media requires a concerted effort from technology firms, educators, parents, and others.

Awareness alone is insufficient; active steps and comprehensive digital literacy are crucial in arming young Australians with the skills needed for safe, healthy digital engagement.

Technology corporations must confront the influence of their platforms on young users.

Beyond the introduction of age limitations and safety protocols, they are ethically bound to place the mental health of their users above profits.

This duty includes a critical reassessment of algorithms and design strategies that foster dependency, ensuring that content and user interactions promote positive mental health and are suitable for all ages.

Educators and others face the task of devising and implementing regulations to hold social media entities accountable, while also embedding digital literacy and safety within the educational syllabus.

These education initiatives should equip children and teenagers with the analytical skills necessary for thoughtful and discerning engagement with social media.

Parents must play a pivotal role in overseeing their children’s use of digital platforms.

Engaging in open conversations about the advantages and hazards tied to social media, along with establishing practical limits, can nurture a more involved digital atmosphere at home.

Parents need and deserve education. Yet, it’s crucial to recognise the excessive burden this digital era imposes on parents.

Expecting them to single-handedly manage and mitigate the complexities of online safety is unrealistic and highlights the need for a unified strategy towards digital wellness.

The advancements and conveniences of the digital age spotlight a critical dilemma — the challenge of leveraging social media’s benefits while protecting our youth from its negative aspects.

The legal action by Canadian school boards underscores the international scale of this dilemma, echoing the concerns of Australian parents and educators.

Looking ahead, the emphasis should be on a collaborative, comprehensive strategy that includes not just regulatory but corporate accountability by social media platforms and educational support for young individuals and their families.

By placing the mental and emotional health of our children at the forefront of the digital age, we lay the groundwork for a safer digital future.

There are various guides online where kids and parents can start building up resilience and education. Books and podcasts like The Anxious Generation, Headspace and the Esafety website are a good start.

Lucio Ribeiro is Director of Marketing Digital & Innovation at Seven Network and a tech columnist at Forbes AU

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