Social media was my escape as a teenager – now it’s morphed into something terrifying
I barely had friends, but I could engage in discussions with follow LGBT+ people who understood me. Now, the abuse of these platforms is leading to a shocking amount of suffering
When I think back to my days in secondary school, one incident in particular sticks out.
It was just after break and there was a table. It had no screws in it. Someone told me to go and sit on it, and silly me did. Predictably, the table collapsed and everybody laughed.
Had that happened just a few years later, it probably would have been recorded and put on Snapchat.
Everyone would have laughed about it for a few more days, but as far as my own personal experiences of social media go, I doubt it would have left me with lasting damage.
Sadly, that’s not the case for everyone.
Take sexting for example. A girlfriend or boyfriend sends their partner an explicit image. A screenshot is taken and that picture is passed round to others. The girl is shamed and is scared to go back to school. The image goes viral online and is used against that person time and time again. It haunts them when they apply for university, or go for a job or a promotion.
Former Love Island contestant Zara McDermott revealed how when she’d sexted, she was kicked out of school after her images were circulated in an act of revenge porn. In a similar case, a 14-year-old boy was added to the police database for sending a naked selfie to a love interest. His mother is now trying to get that removed.
It’s no wonder some develop mental health problems. The fall-out that can happen over these images is huge. Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, questioned why social media companies can’t do more to stop this behaviour in the first place. “There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things,” he told a committee of MPs in 2016. And now the current health secretary, Matt Hancock, has threatened to impose legislation if the tech firm industry fails to introduce preventative measures to “to stop teenagers falling into a suicide trap”.
But can social media companies really solve the problem of mental ill-health among young people?
The case of Molly Russell, who died at the age of 14 after viewing self-harm images on Instagram, shocked the nation. Her dad, Ian, said the algorithms in the social media platform allowed his daughter to view the content. In the days following the tragedy, various agencies pledged to act.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, said the company must do more. And Jackie Doyle-Price, the suicide prevention minister, said the government would legislate if companies failed to act.
Unfortunately, Russell’s case isn’t the only tragedy involving social media. Five years ago, teenager Hannah Smith died after being bullied through messages on the social media platform ask.fm.
That incident was around the same time as the death of two other teenagers – Ciara Pugsley, 15, and Erin Gallagher, 13 – who both took their own lives after also receiving abuse on the online platform.
So, is social media to blame for the rise in mental ill-health?
According to NHS Digital, it partly is. Their research found a correlation between social media use and mental illness. It showed that 87 per cent of 11- to 19-year-olds with a mental illness used social media every day, compared to 77 per cent of those without one.
But as a teenager, I found it useful to be on social media. I struggled with my sexuality and coming to terms with a chronic skin problem.
I barely went out. I barely had friends.
Social media was my escape. I could engage in discussions, follow LGBT+ people who had been through the process and watch “coming out” videos on YouTube.
But there are risks. Social media is a very difficult medium to moderate. While the intentions of Hunt and Doyle-Price are right, in practice it’s like trying to moderate a minefield.
If you close down one application, another one will open. And if you take down one image, another one pops up somewhere else.
So, not only have you got young people using sites and platforms that can potentially influence their approach to dealing with depression and self-harm, but you’ve got countless people intent on exploiting vulnerable young people through these vehicles for promoting unhealthy behaviour.
Simply saying we must invest in mental health services isn’t enough. Social media companies must take account for their role in this too. Their platforms are too easily abused and it’s leading to a shocking amount of suffering for young people. It’s time these companies seriously joined the conversation: not just around mental health, but their own responsibility when it comes to young people’s wellbeing too.