"Instagram is rated as the worst social media platform when it comes to its impact on young people's mental health, a UK survey suggests," BBC News reports.
The survey asked 1,479 young people aged 14-24 to score popular social media apps on issues such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, bullying, body image and "fear of missing out" – where your social media peers seem to be enjoying a better quality of life.
The survey fed into a larger report looking more generally at the impact of social media on people in this age group – so-called "digital natives", who have never lived in a world without the internet.
Despite many headlines flagging the negative effects, the report – published by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) – also explored the potential positive benefits for teenagers, such as improved sense of community and self-identity.
YouTube was found to have the most positive impact on young people, and photo-sharing platform Instagram the most negative.
Acting on this information, the report calls for measures to help protect individuals when using social media platforms.
Their recommendations revolve around increased education on cyber safety and providing more help to protect the mental wellbeing of young people.
Who produced the report?
The report was produced by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Young Health Movement.
The RSPH is an independent charity that works to improve the health and wellbeing of the public.
The Young Health Movement, run by RSPH, is a collective of individuals striving to raise public health awareness in young people.
How accurate were the media reports ?
The study was covered broadly accurately by the UK media, although some of the headline writers were a little unfair on some social media giants.
The Guardian led with, "Facebook and Twitter 'harm young people's mental health'," even though Twitter ranked second best and Facebook third overall.
Why is this survey so timely?
Social media use is booming: 91% of 16-24-year-olds in the UK use the internet and other social networking sites regularly.
Although social media can connect people from all over the world to provide a strong sense of community, rates of anxiety and depression in young people have increased by 70% over the last 25 years.
Recent studies have already suggested associations between social media use and a rise in teen mental health problems.
A Danish study we discussed in 2016 found regular users of Facebook encouraged to quit for a week reported greater satisfaction with their life at the end of the week.
What evidence did they look at?
Evidence was pulled from several sources, including the Office for National Statistics, looking at the effect social media has on different things like sleep, body image, self-expression (their feelings, thoughts or ideas), and self-identity (their qualities as an individual).
As part of their research, the RSPH surveyed 1,479 young people in the UK aged 14-24 to find out more about their use of five of the most popular social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and YouTube.
The survey aimed to better understand how social media affects the health and wellbeing of young people, making comparisons between the different platforms.
Young people were asked about:
- their awareness and understanding of other people's health experiences
- access to trustworthy expert health information
- emotional support
- body image
- real-world relationships
- community building
- "fear of missing out" (FOMO)
The results from the survey were used to rank the social media platforms in terms of positive and negative impact on mental wellbeing.
What are the main findings?
Based on the health and wellbeing questions, the researchers ranked the social media platforms as follows, from having the most positive impact to the most negative:
Across all five social media platforms, the greatest negative impact was around sleep, bullying and FOMO.
The greatest positive impact was felt around self-expression, self-identity and community building.
What recommendations did the report make?
The report rounded off with several calls to action, summarised below. It's hoped these will be adopted to help safeguard young people when online.
A pop-up heavy usage warning on social media
Social media sites can track a person's usage and provide a pop-up warning when they've been online for a length of time deemed potentially harmful. The user can decide whether or not to act on the warning.
An icon to highlight when photos of people have been digitally manipulated
The use of a small watermark or icon to be added to the bottom of a person's photo when an airbrush or filter has been added that may significantly alter their appearance.
Health information on social media to be certified as trustworthy
The Information Standard certification scheme, as used by NHS Choices, should be applied to social media so individuals can know when health information available on social media is trustworthy.
Safe social media use to be taught during lessons in schools
Education should feature information around the safe use of social media, covering topics on cyber bullying, social media addiction and other potentially harmful effects on mental wellbeing. The curriculum should also include information on where young people can seek help.
Social media platforms to identify vulnerable users and signpost to support
Technology can be used to identify posts that suggest the user is affected by mental health problems. The user can then be provided with discreet information on how and where they could seek help, such as The Samaritans.
Youth workers to have social media training
Training should be available for all adults working with young people so they can better understand the potential risks and benefits of social media.
More research to be carried out into the effects of social media on young people's mental health
RSPH calls for more research into the effects of social media on younger people's mental wellbeing, as this research is currently lacking.
This timely report should be welcomed, given that almost all young people use social media, and it undoubtedly can affect their wellbeing. It also offers well-considered recommendations.
However, the study does have some limitations. Researchers gauged the potential positive and negative effects of different social media platforms by asking young people to answer whether they felt better or worse by using them. This can't prove that social media is directly responsible for increasing rates of depression and anxiety.
It's difficult to explore all the various ways the social media sites may make people feel better or worse. It could be that it's dependent on the content and subject matter people are viewing or participating in.
For example, sites like YouTube and Twitter may have been generally rated more positively because individuals were mostly viewing things more removed from their immediate lives, such as celebrity figures, or amusing or interesting video clips, whereas Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram tend to involve friends and family, and be more directly related to their users' lives.
And there will be various forms of "negative" content available on YouTube, so it shouldn't be concluded too strongly that this is necessarily "better" or "safer" than all other platforms.
It would be valuable to further explore why certain platforms could have different effects on wellbeing. The report raises important questions, and we have yet to see the response to the society's recommendations.
If you or a friend or relative are experiencing low self-esteem or symptoms of low mood or anxiety, it's very important to seek help from your GP or speak to someone from school or college so you can get the support you need.