Commentary

Docs Want Warnings On Social Media

Concern about mental health issues associated with social media is serious enough to warrant a health warning alerting users to the risks of excessive usage, somewhat akin to tobacco and alcohol products, according to Britain’s Royal Society for Public Health, which recently published a new report, “#StatusOfMind,” on the impact of social media on the health and well-being of young adults.

Social media has become ubiquitous in little over a decade, the RSPH report noted, with adoption in the UK soaring from 22% of Brits in 2007 to 89% in 2016.

No surprise, younger people lead the way, with 91% of Brits ages 16-24 using social media compared to 51% of those ages 55-64.

While admitting social media’s enormous potential for good in fostering social connections and emotional support, the RSPH report also pointed to growing evidence for a number of negative impacts, especially in young adults, including anxiety, depression, sleep loss, and cyber-bullying.

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On a related subject, the report also noted social media’s addictive qualities, with studies suggesting around 5% of young people are addicted.

Sleep loss is another big worry, as one in five young Brits report waking up during the night to check messages on social media, potentially affecting their academic performance.

Social media may also be worsening body image issues: The RSPH cited study results showing teenage girls are more likely to want to change their appearance after spending time on Facebook.

There’s also evidence that social media contributes to self-consciousness and low self-esteem due to the so-called “compare and despair” dynamic, in which users compare their lives unfavorably to the carefully constructed images presented by other users.

Last but certainly not least, seven in ten young Brits have experienced cyber-bullying, with 37% saying they suffer it frequently; 91% of young people who reported incidents of cyber-bullying said nothing was done about the problem.

In fact, four out of five of the most popular social media platforms appear to contribute to anxiety, depression and other negative outcomes among young Britons, according to study results cited in the report.

Based on a survey of 14 questions for young Brits, YouTube was the only social media platform to score a net “positive” in terms of mental health.

Four others received net negative scores, including Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. 

All this leads the RSPH to suggest that social media platforms be required to include a pop-up warning about the potential mental health effects of heavy social media usage, which would be triggered whenever the individual user showed signs of excessive usage (that’s much less extreme than one alternative, a usage cap, favored by 30% of the respondents to the RSPH’s survey).

The RSPH argued: “The evidence is clear that increased use of social media can be detrimental to some aspects of the health and wellbeing of young people. As with other potentially harmful practices, those partaking in them should be informed of the potential consequences before making their own decision on their actions. A pop-up warning would give young people access to this information so they can make informed decisions about their own health.”

Perhaps more controversial is the RSPH’s recommendation that social media platforms begin pointing out when photos of people have been digitally manipulated, in order to combat the unrealistic expectations created by these images – a suggestion supported by 68% of the young Brits surveyed. 

The RSPH opined: “Fashion brands, celebrities and other advertising organisations may sign up to a voluntary code of practice where the small icon is displayed on their photos to indicate an image may have been digitally enhanced or altered to significantly alter the appearance of people in it.”

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