After Instagram announced that it is banning graphic images of self-harm following the suicide of teenager Molly Russell, pressure is mounting on other social media giants to do the same. While as many as 70 per cent of teenagers use social media daily, it is widely recognised that platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter can have a damaging effect on the mental health of young people. Many reports cite low self-esteem, anxiety and depression as some of the problems that can be exacerbated by social media usage.
Is government legislation the answer?
Until now, social media has largely relied on self-governance in order to monitor and remove graphic or unacceptable content. If illegal content is posted on social media, the person who posted it is more at risk of prosecution than the social media companies themselves. This may now change as the Government is set to look at bringing in legislation to force social media platforms to actively protect children from harmful content.
Suicide prevention minister Jackie Doyle-Price issued a warning to the likes of YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat yesterday, saying: “If they don’t step up to the plate we’ll take legal powers to make sure they do. They have a duty of care to their users. Nothing is off the table.” Her statement was backed by other ministers, such as Culture Minister Margot James who told the BBC that social media platforms need to “prioritise the protection of users, especially children, young people and vulnerable adults”.
While there is no denying that this is a very positive step, at The British School of Etiquette we believe that monitoring and restricting the content that children and young people are exposed to is just one half of the equation. To protect their mental health, it is just as essential, if not more so, to equip them with a mindset centered around the principles of confidence, self-respect and resilience.
The effects of social media on young people
Living in a world that is constantly connected can also make young people feel that they are in a fish bowl where they are under persistent scrutiny. As a result, many of them live in constant fear of being judged, criticised or even bullied for something they have said online or how they look in a selfie. While it is easy to dismiss selfies as harmless, young people’s propensity to post pictures of themselves at any opportunity can have a negative effect on mood, body image and self-esteem.
A recent report by researchers from King’s College London found that 60 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds feel lonely while one in 20 said they never spend time with friends outside school. More than a third (36 per cent) found it difficult to make friends and as many as nine out of ten did not feel comfortable mixing with people from different backgrounds.
Strategies for helping young people
As alarming as these statistics sound, there are many things that parents and educators can do to encourage young people to lessen their reliance on social media and the online world:
• Set clear rules and expectations around the use of technology. For example, do not allow mobile phones at the dinner table or after a certain time at night. Make it a family rule to charge phones and other digital devices in a designated area, outside of bedrooms.
• Encourage children to invite friends over or meet them in the local park rather than just chatting via social media or instant messaging.
• Have regular conversations about social media usage, mental health and friendship issues.
• Help your child to adopt a growth mindset to encourage them to learn from mistakes and develop resilience. Praise them for effort and perseverance rather than the outcome of a task.
• Expose them to new social situations to help them grow in confidence, boost their communication skills and build traits such as empathy and self-awareness. This could include bringing them to your workplace, volunteering together at a homeless shelter or visiting elderly relatives.
• Learn as much as you can about the social media sites your teenager uses and have open discussions about the positives and negatives. Encourage them to build a social media profile that reflects their best self and to always exercise caution when interacting with new people online.
• Recognise that for many teenagers social media is an important part of their lives. Help them to plan their days and schedules to include other activities such as physical exercise, creative pursuits and family dinners.