This is a response to the All Party Parliamentary Group’s call for evidence for the inquiry into ‘Managing the Impact of Social Media on Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing’.
How The Diana Award’s work ties in to the subject of this inquiry
- There is firmly established evidence of the impact bullying has on long-term mental health concerns . We define bullying as the repeated negative behaviour that is intended to make others feel upset, uncomfortable or unsafe. This type of behaviour can impact on various aspects of mental health, including emotional functioning, relationships, and academic performance . As a charity that focuses on anti-bullying, our work has indirect but important implications for young people’s mental health.
- Increasingly, our training has been adapted to reflect the ever-present nature of social media in young people’s lives. 85% of teachers and staff who oversee the implementation of our programmes report that their students witness cyberbullying daily. Given our area of expertise, our emphasis here is on tackling cyberbullying and promoting digital resilience.
- Our trainings are based on the premise that for young people, the distinction between online and offline is becoming increasingly blurred and that online and offline bullying are not separable but often part of a single lived experience. We use a peer-to-peer model, training young people to become ‘Anti-Bullying Ambassadors’ within their schools, working with the support of staff to prevent as well as tackle cases of bullying. In total, the Diana Award has trained over 25,000 young people as Anti-Bullying Ambassadors who are responsible for running whole-school campaigns to tackle bullying on and offline.
Which negative areas of mental health and wellbeing impact of social media are of most concern and should be prioritised for action?
Evidence from our Be Strong Online programme, a peer-led digital resilience programme to empower young people to lead online safety campaigns in school (hereafter BSO), indicates that for young people, social media can have a detrimental impact on wellbeing, particularly within a school context.
From a sample of 1,350, our Be Strong Online Ambassadors have reported that, prior to completing the Be Strong Online programme:
82% have felt ‘hooked’ to social media and personal devices
- Whether someone is ‘hooked’ to social media is less about how much time they spend on a device than it is about how beholden they feel towards it. From research conducted by The Diana Award in partnership with ASKfm and psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, we know that young people often feel compelled to respond to messages quickly, which may impact on their stress levels and sense of control.
81% of Be Strong Online Ambassadors report low self-esteem as a result of seeing something on social media
Issues with body image and self-esteem are growing, particularly amongst young people: around half of girls and up to one third of boys have dieted to lose weight, and over half of bullying experienced by young people in our study was because of appearance. Our research shows that when it comes to social media specifically, almost one in five of young people will alter an image of themselves before posting it online. Equally worrying, one in ten young people will actually go on to change their physical appearance after taking a selfie they do not like.
Our research found that almost two-thirds of teens (63%) behave differently online to the way they do offline, resulting in what Dr Papadopoulos refers to as a kind of “crowdsourcing” of their identities. If young people are not supported properly, the pressure to curate an online self can interfere with or at least complicate the journey of authentic self-discovery, which may undermine mental well-being for some teens .
81% of Be Strong Online Ambassadors have felt tired at school as a result of overusing social media
- We have found that the compulsion young people feel to use social media can disrupt their sleep patterns which may result in them not getting enough quality rest. As sleep deprivation can heighten the risk for mental health problems such as depression encouraging young people to be mindful of their social media use is key.
What does a healthy relationship with social media look like, and what are its key components?
In thinking about healthy relationships with social media there is a tendency to think in terms of mitigating negatives (the absence/ reduction of cyberbullying or harm). Whilst this is an important goal for the broader sector to work towards, The Diana Award also recognises the beneficial effects that social media use can have on young people’s wellbeing:
- Members of our Supercell Youth Board (15 young people from across the UK who work with The Diana Award, in partnership with mobile gaming company Supercell, to tackle bullying in online game contexts) have told us that gaming has allowed them to join an international community and forge positive, healthy friendships with other young people.
- Many of the Anti-Bullying Ambassadors that we train go onto use social media to run anti-bullying campaigns and share motivational ideas with their peers.
- Teachers join our ‘Educators against Bullying’ Facebook page and use it to share best practice on tackling bullying in their schools.
Our work, both in the Anti-Bullying Ambassador and BSO training, looks to build young people’s digital resilience, encouraging them to be more critical consumers of the material they encounter on social media. Through BSO training, and its ‘Digital Detox’ module in particular, we explore how excessive tech use can impact on sleep and in turn mental health and wellbeing.
Our training aims to encourage young people to:
- Understand that behaving respectfully towards themselves and others is as important online as it is offline
- Be an upstander (i.e. safely intervene to support peers experiencing negativity online and help to create a positive atmosphere)
- Identify when to report something online (understand the community guidelines, reporting mechanisms and their rights as social media users)
Our Anti-Bullying Ambassador training works to promote young people’s mental health with respect to social media on two levels. On the first level, we equip Anti-Bullying Ambassadors with the tools to protect themselves and their peers online. This in turn may help to alleviate any risks to young people’s mental health associated with online negativity. On the second level, we have found that Anti-Bullying Ambassadors feel a sense of pride and self-efficacy that comes with being “change-makers” at their schools. It is widely recognised that an increased sense of self-efficacy is associated with good mental health.
Indeed, we have found that for a number of our Anti-Bullying Ambassadors, mental health concerns are a motivating force for engaging in our anti-bullying and online safety training:
- “I'm passionate about mental health and know how closely bullying links in”
- “I am passionate about promoting good mental health and positivity within young people and have experienced mental illness myself, therefore I have a deep understanding of triggers and how to help and support those suffering”
- “I was bullied myself and ended up with mental health issues and I don't want anyone else having to experience the same/a similar thing”
- “I want to allow my fellow students to feel comfortable in the school environment and help tackle mental health issues as a result of bullying”
- “My sister was bullied and her mental health got badly affected by it. I also just want to help the people being treated negatively as I think it is completely unacceptable”
Is it possible to establish official guidelines for the extent and nature of healthy or low-risk social media usage, in a similar manner to drinking guidelines or the body mass index? How should these be formulated?
Building on our work around digital resilience, The Diana Award website offers resources to young people and teachers, many of which highlight key ways young people can stay safe when using social media, providing a loose set of guidelines for healthy and low-risk media usage. We do not believe a “one-size-fits-all” model would be effective.
Additionally, we endeavour to include young people’s voice in every aspect of the work that we do, not least in our consultations with social media companies’ safety and policy teams to ensure that platforms’ community standards are designed with young people’s well-being in mind.
- Listen to as a broad a range of young people as possible to ensure that any guidelines formulated are sensitive to the diverse needs and experiences of those young people.
- Treat young people as powerful allies in efforts to address some of the challenges around social media use and mental health.
- Balance a focus on “mitigating negatives” with an appreciation and utilisation of the opportunities that social media provides.
- Be mindful of how young people’s lives are seamlessly moving between an online and offline space. As a result, when thinking about the effects of social media on young people’s mental health we should also take into consideration the wider context in which that person is living.