Scapegoating social media won’t uncover the real mental health issues

Sarah O’Donnell, senior consultant at Big White Wall writes about why it’s dangerous to blame the rise in mental health issues with social media and how online spaces could actually benefit people struggling with problems such as anxiety and depression.

In the debate about what is behind the current mental health crisis among young people, there appears to be a growing consensus that the villain of the piece, and the root cause of dramatic increases in stress and anxiety, is social media.

This is perhaps unsurprising as social media networks, coupled with rapid advances in smart phone technology have virtually changed the way a generation communicates, compared with the one before.  But, by making social media a scapegoat for social ills are we not over-simplifying a complex issue?  And don’t we owe it to our young people to take a step back and look at the argument from all sides.

For example, a 2015 University of Missouri study that expressed concerns about social media and found a link between Facebook use and depression also found that people who use the platform primarily to connect with others do not experience the negative effects. “In fact, when not triggering feelings of envy, the study shows, Facebook could be a good resource and have positive effects on well-being,” Psychology Today reports.

In other words, the manner in which social media is used is key to determining if it is likely to have a positive or negative impact on well-being.

In fact in its review into the effects of social media, The UK Mental Health Foundation concluded that these platforms can actually benefit people already dealing with mental health issues.  It does so by helping them build online communities that provide a source of emotional support.

At Big White Wall, we believe that the debate currently taking place around this issue lacks a rounded perspective. Online is where this generation conducts a good proportion of their lives and this in turn has shaped their outlook and their expectations. To simply blame the online environment for their mental health problems is simplistic and naïve, disregarding a whole host of other causes.  The pathways to mental illness are considerable and varied, and to suggest mental health problems can be attributed to social media alone would be an over-simplification. It may well be a factor, but it is far from the only factor.

Our Support Network is designed to use this change as a force for good by shifting online behaviour, via social networks, to an environment that is considerably safer and more supportive. Our anonymous community supports and helps each other, interacting in a similar way as they would on social media, but in an environment moderated by clinically trained professionals known as ‘Wall Guides’.

By embracing the online environment in this way we are simply creating safe spaces – much the same as those that exist, and should continue to exist, in the offline world.  The internet, and particularly social media networks, are in reality only in their infancy and their cultural significance is yet to be fully understood. We believe that the internet doesn’t have to be a negative place, it can be a tremendous asset to those with mental health issues if used correctly, in conjunction with in-person support and services.


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