As social media becomes ever-more prevalent in the lives of today’s youth, there are more questions about its impacts on mental health. New research demonstrates unequivocally that social media presents both new challenges and new solutions in shaping cognitive, mental, and emotional development.

A recent British study released this year by the Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement fuelled concern. It found that four out the five most popular social media platforms may well be damaging young people’s mental health. A survey of nearly 1,500 fourteen to twenty-four year olds found that usage of these platforms increased feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.

Of the five major platforms, Instagram and Snap were found to have the most negative impacts, ostensibly due to the predominance of visual imagery. By contrast, YouTube was judged to be the only generator of net positive impacts – albeit with usage correlated to a heightened risk of sleep deprivation. Facebook and Twitter were also examined.

Not everyone agrees that correlation implies causation. According to a leading UK psychiatrist, quoted in The Guardian: “I am sure that social media plays a role in unhappiness, but it has as many benefits as it does negatives. We need to teach children how to cope with all aspects of social media – good and bad – to prepare them for an increasingly digitised world. There is real danger in blaming the medium for the message.”

There is also growing concern about the mental health of young people in Australia. A five-year survey demonstrated steadily rising rates of symptoms that – if left untreated, greatly increase the likelihood of serious mental disorders later in life. Produced by Mission Australia, the Youth Mental Health Report recommends that technology be embraced as a legitimate alternative to face to face service delivery. Indeed, the surveys showcase the Internet’s centrality for those suffering or seeking diagnosis and understanding. While one half of all young people expressed confidence in going online, the level was higher for those already reporting symptoms.

As a result, governments and other stakeholders are seeking to devise innovative solutions to better reach today’s digitally enabled youth. There are many examples in Canada. Anxiety BC, a provincially supported charity, provides online videos and other tools for young people. Nationally, Media Smarts works with both government and industry to both understand and expand digital literacy across all segments of the population.

In furthering these and other efforts into a comprehensive system for mental health awareness and remedy, there is an important distinction to be made between information and engagement. With respect to information, it is about ensuring that today’s youth understand how to navigate the Internet and filter the legitimacy of varying sources. Accordingly, Media Smarts is working with Facebook to devise new tools to help identify and understand the implications of fake or misleading information.

For governments and agencies, the challenge lies in shifting from information to engagement, and in providing today’s youth with what MIT technology and society professor Sherry Turkle calls ‘sacred spaces’ to discuss symptoms, concerns, and challenges in an open and protected environment. Many such spaces for youth especially are likely to be virtual – and they are likely to take place via social media platforms rather than government or charity-housed websites that are all-too-often the primary focus of public health authorities.

New forms of conversation are central to devising enlightened engagement and innovative and collective solutions. The encouraging placement of YouTube in the British survey as a positive enabler of self-expression and emotional support is a particularly important piece of this policy and resourcing puzzle: it suggests the need for new discursive models of both visual and text-based forms of involvement on the one hand, and community-building on the other hand. Conversely, warning signs stemming from Instagram and Snap underline the dangers of an excessive reliance on imagery.

The Australian report recommends engagement and empowerment as the basis of policy innovation: ‘Young people should be engaged in designing youth-friendly mental health services and as advocates on important mental health issues.’ Such is the collective challenge for all sectors in advancing cognitive and mental health capacities in today’s digital universe.


Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (