Social media, mental illness

By Tracey Maxfield

There has been a lot of criticism directed at the internet and social media sites and their impact on society, notably children and teenagers.

Many people are claiming that social media is responsible for the increase in mental illness, suicide and bullying in children and teenagers.

But is this true?

Experts tell us that depression in kids has increased steadily for the past 50 years, and suicide in teenagers has increased 28% since 2000.

However, the most popular social media sites among kids — YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat — were not even available until 2005 when YouTube was released.

In 2006, Facebook and Twitter were made available to children under the age of 13 years, and in 2010, Instagram was released followed by Snapchat in 2011.


I do not believe social media is to blame directly for the increase in mental illness, suicide and bullying; however, I think each social media site has played a significant role in contributing to the increase.

What social media has done is change the way we communicate, share information and develop relationships with others.

Today, we can speak to anyone in the world in a matter of seconds, the challenge is that children and teenagers are quite trusting by nature and can easily be misled by people whose intentions may not be honest and trustworthy:

  • catfishing
  • cyberbullies
  • stalkers
  • pedophiles
  • human traffickers.

In addition, social media has created a world where pop stars and Hollywood stars are seen as role models for children and teenagers.

Sadly, this has created a world of comparison and materialism where happiness and self worth is defined by popularity, good looks and material goods.

Children/teenagers believe the only way they will be accepted by their peers is to conform to these unrealistic and unattainable standards

Social media also exposes children/teenagers to the horrors of the world they live in. Every day, they see news reports of countries ravaged by wars, riots, civil unrest, poverty, natural disasters, unemployment, fake news, the threat of global warming, migration, anti-Semitism.

Furthermore, crime appears to be escalating, homelessness and economic hardship is increasing, there are more gangs, sex/human trafficking is widespread, plus we are in the midst of the opioid crisis.

As adults, many of us feel frustrated, uncertain and concerned about the changes happening, so is there little wonder our children and teenagers feel that they have little control over their lives, their future?

What we see and read on social media is part of every-day life, and constant exposure to negativity and violence, desensitizes our kids to the point where some have no understanding of the impact of violence, anger, aggression towards others.

Other ways social media increases the risk of developing a mental illness is the social isolation.

Just because a child/teenager has hundreds even thousands of on-line friends does not necessarily mean he/she is more social and happier.

Facebook Envy, and the fear of missing out directly impacts kids mental well being.

There are also on-line extreme communities that promote and encourage kids to diet and lose weight, to not take medications for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc.

For example, until recently self harm or non-suicidal self injury was normalized and even encouraged on many sites.

Video Games

Did you know that social media and video game addiction is considered more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes?

While excessive social media use has not been recognized as a disorder by the World Health Organization or the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition), the related diagnosis of gaming disorder has recently been included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a recognized mental disorder requiring medical/psychological intervention and treatment.

Research has proven that playing these games can actually alter the brain chemistry of a child/teenager.

The physical and emotional responses triggered by the game (remember brain and body are one) mimic the responses to real life situations e.g. increased heart rate, blood pressure adrenaline, dopamine (flight, fight, fright response).

In addition, playing these games increases aggressive behaviours, moodiness and desensitizes the child/teenager to violence, inappropriate language, etc.

What can parents do?

The most important thing a parent can do is to talk with and listen to your child/teenager. Observe body, mannerisms, lack of communication, and respond to, not react or ignore, appropriately.

Parents should talk with their kids about cyber security and also be aware of the social media sites and chat rooms he/she visits.

Social media sites can be very helpful and supportive if used correctly.

To improve sleep, it may be a good idea if everyone agrees to a time where all devices can be turned off and placed in an alternate room e.g. kitchen. Also, try to limit time on social media and playing video games. Video games should be reviewed by parents before hand and discussed with child/teenager, so he/she understands that violence, or car theft, etc., is not appropriate.

The more we restrict and ban certain games or access to sites, the more a child/teenager will seek them out, so perhaps the best advice is to be there, be aware, instil good values and a sense of right and wrong in your child/teen and be available to listen and talk.

Tracey Maxfield is a nurse, speaker, author, peer specialist and mental health/stop bullying advocate and educator.  In 2017, she wrote a column for Castanet called Dementia Aware and in 2018, she published her first book Escaping the Rabbit Hole: my journey through depression. Check out her videos, blog and on-line course at www.traceymaxfield.com. She can be contacted at [email protected] 

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