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The good, the bad, and the potential of social media

Source: NHE Nov/Dec 2018

Vicki Nash, head of policy and campaigns at Mind, assesses the impact of social media on the nation’s wellbeing.

Few days go by without a story in the press about the negative effect of social media on mental health. It seems obvious: people, especially children and young people, are often seen staring at their mobile phones rather than engaging with the world around them, while the news agenda is often dominated with stories of young people exposed to often horrific bullying and abuse online.

Other problems include the impact of seeing our peers enjoying themselves – perhaps posting about a new job or relationship – when we might be feeling low or insecure. It can be natural in such situations to compare our own lives to theirs, despite only seeing a selective snapshot of what their lives are actually like. Things like this can hit our self-esteem, which can in turn lead to mental health problems like depression.

In light of this, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock proposed banning social media to under-13s, and tasked Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, with producing guidelines on the use of social media by children and young people. Meanwhile, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has called on big technology companies like Facebook and Twitter to pay a levy to “help stem the tide of mental ill-health,” which he sees as being caused by excessive use of social media.

It’s clear that there are many cases of social media contributing to mental health problems in some circumstances, and any attempt to further understand the relationship between the two is to be welcomed. But we need to consider all sides of the question and not make social media the fall guy for a more complex problem. There has already been a backlash from some quarters who say blaming social media is unhelpful and short-sighted, and that we need to consider the bigger picture.

It’s easy to forget that social media can be good for our wellbeing. Around four in five of us find it beneficial to talk to others about our mental health, and online communities can be an excellent way of doing so. Having a broad support network, available instantly through our mobile phones or computers, can be very useful. If you’re experiencing depression, for example, you might find it difficult to make phone calls or leave the house for a social gathering, but writing messages online or engaging in virtual communities might make all the difference.

Access to social media in all its forms also allows greater access to advice and information on how to look after ourselves, from organisations like Mind and the NHS. It gives us the opportunity to take part in online communities where we can talk openly about our mental health, and see what others are sharing as well – helping us to see that we are not alone if we are struggling.

So it is important that we recognise that social media can have good and bad effects on us, and approach it appropriately. To that end, we look forward to seeing what the chief medical officer’s guidance on how long people, especially young people, can safely spend on social media.

As social media and technology play an increasingly central role in our lives, it’s ever more difficult to do our jobs or even socialise without being online, even if we know it’s negatively affecting our wellbeing. We hope any forthcoming guidance also prompts technology companies to think about how they can design more mentally healthy experiences.

Above all, though, it’s encouraging to see a recognition that mental health is about more than accessing health services. We are finally starting to see some investment in NHS mental health services, which over time will rectify the damage caused by decades of underfunding and, more recently, cuts. But at the same time, demand is rising as we break down stigma and encourage people to seek the help they need.

We are increasingly talking about prevention, which will be a key focus of the NHS long-term plan, and the recent announcement of a minister for mental health whose remit includes suicide prevention is another big step in the right direction. Considering mental health in the round is essential, and with that comes a need to look at how we stem the flow of people needing to access mental health services. We have to think about how we can support people to look after their own wellbeing and live fulfilling lives, and well-resourced public health, social care and other services are a key part of the picture.

Mental health is now rightly being given the attention it deserves by the government, but there is a way to go. A cross-governmental strategy for mental health is the next logical move; one that joins up the work being done in health and social care, workplaces, education, and areas like social media. We urgently need greater acknowledgement of the roles that factors such as housing, debt, employment, and the benefits systems play on our mental health.

There isn’t a single area of our lives that doesn’t impact on our wellbeing, and until mental health is threaded throughout all of public policy, the job is far from done. The will is clearly there; we now need to keep up the momentum and, crucially, the investment, to support and improve the nation’s mental health.


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