ROCK ’n’ roll, violent video games and now social media. All have been blamed by the older generations for the ills of the young, with social media currently under fire. Media report after media report suggest it is behind rising levels of mental health disorders in young people, while parents and teachers worry that too much screen time is causing irreparable harm.

Every week seems to bring a new study linking social media with, variously, suicide, bullying, sleep deprivation, eating disorders, self-harm, anxiety and depression.

With so much research being published it must be beyond dispute that social media is having a catastrophic effect on young people’s mental health. Why then did the Scottish Government last week call for even more research on its impact?

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Their call is on the back of Audit Scotland’s report warning that mental health services for children and young people were having difficulty coping with rising demand. Medical referrals have increased by 22% over the last five years and MSPs last week voiced dissatisfaction that no data had been collected on the reason for the rise.

MSP members of the public audit committee went on to decide they needed to discover “the extent to which the use of social media was having an impact”.

The National:

However, Dame Denise Coia – who chaired a joint council and Scottish Government taskforce on young people’s mental health – told the committee that there was “not enough research evidence” to be sure.

The committee concluded that “comprehensive research into the impact of social media on children and young people’s mental health is required as an essential element of preventative action and early intervention” and called on the UK Government to commission it.

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In the wake of their call the Sunday National asked experts in the field in Scotland if more research is really needed and if they think there is a link between the use of social media and poor mental health in young people.

“People like to blame whatever is popular for what is going on – it used to be rock and roll music, then violent video games and at the moment people are looking at social media,” said Dr Chris Hand of Glasgow Caledonian University.

“What is really unfortunate is that a lot of people seem to be using social media as a bit of a scapegoat and that is problematic as it does not necessarily lead to people getting appropriate support and distracts from the bigger issue about service provision and whether young people are looked after.

“We know there has been a lot of cuts to mental health services, especially for youth, and that is a much bigger issue for mental health and well-being.”

He added: “This debate is leading away from the bigger issue which is that a lot of mental health issues are about geopolitics and what is happening in the real world, economics and services within the community but social media is a very convenient target.”

He said it was difficult to decide how much mental health problems could be attributed to social media and how much was because young people did not have enough access to support services.

“Maybe as a community we are not observant to signs of risk in young people and maybe that is where we can focus on,” he said.

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While there is a fair amount of research on the subject, Dr Hand said that much of it had used “blunt” measures about the amount of time people were using social media rather than examining what they were looking at.

“You could be looking at holiday pictures or sexting,” he said. “A celebrity reading all the nasty things people have said about them is very different from me looking at pictures of peoples’ dinner.”

Another issue is that much of the research is based on self-reported data, according to Dr Hand.

“A lot of these self-reported measures are quite unreliable. People are generally not very self-aware or good at recording that kind of data,” he said.

The National:

“There is scope for a lot more research. We need to know who is most susceptible. It’s very difficult to know if people self-harmed because they looked at photos of self-harming or if they were interested in self-harming before they looked at the photos. They might be researching it because they want to get help or because they want to know how to do it.”

ONE of the problems with conducting research in this area, he said, is that it would be unethical if a researcher tried to conduct a randomised control trial where one group was subjected to cyber-bullying and the other wasn’t.

Instead, he suggested the research would have to be longitudinal so that people are monitored over a long period of time on their social media habits as well as what else is happening in their lives.

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“The really unfortunate situation at the moment is that we don’t necessarily know how vulnerable individuals are before they start using social media and whether they have control over things that are happening in their lives or their physical health which we know has a huge impact on mental health and well being,” said Dr Hand.

“What is often happening is that people are seeing cases youth suicide and are kind of working back from that horrible event and saying this happened because of social media.

“It is really tragic when any young person attempts to or takes their own life but what really worries me is that a lot of social media attention is not in the right areas.

‘‘We seem to be saying social media is responsible for this when in fact it may have exaggerated something that was already there. It may be that certain individuals are vulnerable in the first place and social media is just a factor of many. A lot of people use it who use it don’t have difficulties with self-esteem or mental health.

“We don’t know if some have some a predisposition to looking for pictures of self-harming, for example, and we don’t know what services are available to that person.

“A couple of individuals might use social media similarly and one may have a negative mental health outcome and one may not. So any mental health problems could be to do with other life events. Maybe what social media needs to be doing is picking up on triggers. There may be patterns of use that indicate a risk of someone engaging in harmful behaviour.”

He added: “I think we do have to have calm, collected considered research into the relationship between social media use and mental health but to say off the bat that it has negative impacts is an over-generalisation as it may be impacting on people who are already vulnerable. The issue is much more about us as a society recognising vulnerability and supporting each other so people are not in a position where something potentially harmful has an effect.”

Dr Hand said that rather than sanctions being made against social media platforms they should be looked at to see how they could be used to protect vulnerable individuals. Dr Stella Chan, reader in Clinical Psychology at the University of Edinburgh, agreed more research is needed.

“At the moment the research findings are very mixed on the effect of social media on young people,” she said. “Some studies find there is no association at all and some studies find there is an association but even in these there has not been enough evidence of a causal effect.

‘‘We don’t know if people that have mental health difficulties spend more time on social media or if the social media causes the mental health difficulties so we need to narrow it down with more research.”

Dr Chan said the debate should not be about whether young people use social media but about how they use it and how much as there were pros and cons of social media use.

“My research about depression shows that one of the biggest risk factors is social isolation and in that sense if you use social media properly and talk to the right people I think it has great potential to offer a lot more social support,” she said.

“A lot of the time we worry about young people sitting on their phones all the time but the fact that social media can be used at any time can be a good thing. If you are awake worrying in the middle of the night then can you go on social media and maybe there is someone to talk to, so there is something positive there about social connections if you are using it properly.”

ON the down side, said Dr Chan, is that if people are obsessive in their use of social media it reduces the time they have for healthy activities like exercise.

“In that case social media could be a hindrance rather than a facilitator for good mental health so it is about how much you use it and how you use it.”

Dr Chan added that while many teachers and parents were worried about cyber-bullying, her understanding of the research on the issue was that people who were likely to be bullied online are also more likely to be bullied offline.

“It is more about bullying than cyber-bullying that we need to think about,” she said. “It is about safeguarding.”

“The final point is that social media is quite new to us. A lot of parents and teachers are worried because in our generation we did not grow up with it and even if we use it ourselves we tend to use it differently from young people.

‘‘So there has been a generational change but at the same time change is also an opportunity. We can make use of it, as health care providers and service providers can engage with young people even if it is just to provide more information.

‘‘There is also some research emerging on whether we can look at people’s social media behaviour and use that to help detect early signs of mental health problems so it is possible we can embrace the changes in a more positive way.”

Dr Heather Cleland Woods who runs the #Sleepyteens Project at the School of Psychology at the University of Glasgow has investigated whether there is a negative effect on sleep from night-time social media use.

Her research found there is a small but significant relationship between night-time social use and anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem and sleep quality.

“The effect was significant but small and there are other things we need to talk about when considering this. It is not telling us it is the root cause – that’s why it is really important for the Scottish Government to fund research so we can understand the nature of this interaction,” she said.

“It is not necessarily just using social media that affects us, it is how we use it. If I am constantly comparing myself to people that are younger, fitter and better looking that is one thing but if I am using it to maintain social connections with friends and people all around the world and I have support through these interactions those are very different things.”