As part of the Ask Nicola Morgan competition** going on right now, every school to enter gets at least one question answered on my website and I’m answering the very first question today. My choice of questions to answer does NOT indicate my thoughts about which school might win: I’m answering them anyway!
(** The deadline is June 8th (HURRY UP!) and there are fab prizes of books to be won and even the chance of a free, informal mini-visit from me.)
The first question comes from The Booklings Book Club, Glenthorne High School. Also, congrats to them for being the first school to enter. I sent them a free copy of Positively Teenage as a reward!
The question I’ve chosen to answer is a tricky one:
“Do you think teen mental health would improve if social media was banned or vanished completely?”
Cool question. Let me start with two quick points:
First, I think this is about everyone’s mental health. I don’t think it’s particularly age-specific. IF the abolition of social media would improve teenage mental health, I think it would improve everyone’s.
Second, of course, it’s simply not possible to put social media back into the bottle: social media is here to stay, though I’m sure it will change in its form over the next few years. It can’t be banned and it’s not going to vanish.
Leaving that aside, here’s what I think. And, of course, there’s more detail in The Teenage Guide to Life Online.
Although there seem to be some negative effects for some people of social media use (or its over-use) there are also benefits. I’m cautious about studies that try to measure how much negative or positive effect there is, for two reasons. First, studies measure very specific and often not very real-life situations. Second, I think it’s more important to look at how social media affects you/me as individuals than to look at statistics, because statistics only try to measure risk, rather than the reality for you or me. And I don’t think we need studies for that: we can see and feel how it affects us.
A scientific study could show that many people suffer ill effects but it wouldn’t show whether you or I will suffer ill effects. If a study showed that everyone would suffer ill effects, that would be different.
Also, scientific studies are not good at telling the difference between different sorts of online use. So they tend to measure, for example, how long someone spends online but there’s a vast difference between one person’s behaviour online and another’s. Plus, there’s a difference between what is happening to one person and what is happening to another. For example, one person might spend 2 hours a day on Snapchat and have a terrible experience while someone else spends 4 hours and has no problems because his/her friends don’t cause problems.
Some research that suggests that there’s a negative effect of not being on social media at all, perhaps because then people are cut off from what their friends are doing. If all your friends are online and you aren’t, you may suffer from feeling left out. The same research suggests that there is likely to be a negative effect of being online too much. This is referred to as a Goldilocks effect – that you can have too little or too much or just the right amount. However, again, these are just statistics: likelihoods. They don’t say what will happen to you. (And no one can accurately say how much is too little or too much or just enough!)
I think the question to ask is: Do you feel that your mental health would improve if social media didn’t exist? For me, the answer is no. I think there would be some advantages (more time to do other things, less time wasting as I watch silly stuff or play games online) and some disadvantages (fewer chances to connect with friends and get support and experience the benefits of social media.)
I suggest that the same answer might apply to you. So, I’d say that my answer to your question is this:
- There would be some advantages to some teenagers’ mental health if social media didn’t exist
- But also some disadvantages
- Although we can’t scientifically answer this, I believe that, overall, there might be more advantages if it didn’t exist. I don’t think we can prove it one way or another but if I had to guess I’d say, yes, on balance, I think mental health might be improved overall, at least for some/many people if online social media didn’t exist. But that’s not going to happen. And i wouldn’t want it to. I think we have to live with what we have an make sure we have the positives and minimise the negatives.
What can we do?
What must happen – and we must make it happen – is:
- That we first understand the reasons why mental health is at risk (see The Teenage Guide to Life Online!)
- Then start to take steps to live well online by improving how we control our use, noticing when being online is making us feel bad and learning to step away and look at the world outside the screen. We need to take control.
You could ask the same question about alcohol: yes, perhaps the world would on balance be a better place without alcohol, but it’s not going away, it’s not sensible or practical to ban it, and what we do need to do is have sensible, healthy rules around it. Learn the downside and act accordingly.
THANK YOU, Booklings Club, for your excellent Question and for starting off this series of Questions and Answers! And good luck with your entry! I’ll be answering another school’s question soon.