*Alexia Ryan (Photo: Georgia Robinson)
“Some days I would feel powerful and in control, but other days I find myself shutting everyone out.”
Alexia Ryan is among the thousands of young Australians who have struggled with mental health issues this year, and she concedes social media is largely to blame. Psychologists agree.
It’s just one of the reasons why the Federal Government has launched a new study to draw the most complete picture yet of Australia’s physical and mental health.
The Intergenerational Health and Mental Health Study (IHMHS) will comprise four national surveys, over several years.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is responsible for collecting the data, starting this month with the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing. The remaining studies will follow the 2021 Australian Census.
Currently, the results of the ABS’ 2017 – 2018 National Health Survey provide information on a range of conditions, including mental and behavioural disorders.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, this survey showed that people like Alexia, who are aged between 15 – 24, had the highest rates of long-term mental disorder, and in this age group, 30 per cent were females and more than 21 per cent were males.
Mission Australia produced a Youth Survey this year which asked the respondents aged 15 – 19 how happy they are. Of those respondents, 58.6 per cent said they were happy or very happy, while 10.7 per cent said they were sad or very sad.
Mission Australia also produced a Youth Mental Health Report in 2016 which more specifically looked at mental health among adolescents and the factors affecting their mental health. Between 2012 – 2016 the proportion of young people being diagnosed with a mental illness increased by 21.9 per cent.
(Graphic: Georgia Robinson)
The ages of 18 and 19 had the largest increase of 50.5 per cent between 2012 and 2016.
It is during this time period that we begin to see a significant increase in social media use – especially among younger age groups. That means one in four young people is now at risk of developing a serious mental illness – and that risk will increase with age.
Alexia, who is a 19-year-old university student, is one of those four and has felt that quarantine this year has had an impact on her mental wellbeing.
“Currently I believe my mental health fluctuates,” she says. “Some days I would feel powerful and in control, but other days I find myself shutting everyone out.
“I do feel that to some degree social media has negatively impacted my mental health.”
I felt as though my self-worth was placed solely upon how I looked, which caused feelings of insecurity.”
At the age of 16 Alexia suffered from a period of restrictive eating and during this time she found herself regularly comparing herself to online beauty standards.
“I found myself constantly looking in the mirror and comparing myself to unrealistic beauty standards.”
According to the Youth Survey, 33 per cent of young people aged 15 – 19 said that body image was a top issue of concern and when looking at gender differences 45.9 per cent of females compared with 15.7 per cent of males noted it as a concern.
Psychologists believe that there is a distinct correlation between social media use and mental health issues among young people.
Social media began to rise in popularity in the early 2000s and its use continues to rise yearly. From 2015 – 2020, the percentage of social media users in Australia increased by more than 22 per cent.
The Yellow Social Media Report for 2020 also revealed that “55% of those aged 18 – 29 check social media at least 10 times a day.” And that 71 per cent of the overall population is active on social media.
Facebook and Instagram are the two social media apps most commonly used by by Gen Z. Eight-six per cent use Facebook and 75 per cent use Instagram. As these percentages rise, so do youth mental health problems.
(Graphic: Georgia Robinson)
According to 2019 ABS data, intentional self harm (suicide) is “the leading cause of death for people aged 15 – 49.”
There was a 20.98 per cent increase in death by intentional self-harm (suicide) between 2014 and 2019 and in 2019 it accounted for “over one-third of all deaths in people aged 15 – 24.”
Early studies into social media demonstrated that there was a correlation between increased use and mental health issues, as it often leads to “the altered (and often wrong) impression of the physical and personality traits of other users,” the report says.
As a psychologist, Dr Elizabeth Margules supports this idea when looking at the role social media plays in mental health problems.
“Technology presents a major issue for mental health… digital peer pressure is enormous,” she says.
Adolescence and young adulthood are both major transitional periods and while most individuals traditionally went to their parents or schools for help, they now go to the internet. While this has its positives, Dr Margules says that “teenagers spend much of their time on social networks where media determines the criteria for their existence.”
“Social media can be a toxic expression of unrealistic beauty standards.”
Constant comparison can lead to deflated self-esteem and can cause anxiety and depressive symptoms among young people. Dr Margules says “feelings of anxiety and depression when using social media can also be increased in those with pre-existing mental illnesses”.
Alexia also believes that “being constantly exposed to pictures and videos of people who were born looking a certain way can trigger mental health struggles for anyone. Social media can be a toxic expression of unrealistic beauty standards which can force mental struggles, such as an eating disorder in my case.”
The World Health Organisation outlines that an increased use of technology is a risk for the mental health of young people because “media influence and gender norms can exacerbate the disparity between an adolescent’s lived reality and their perceptions and aspirations for the future.”
— Georgia Robinson @georgiar117