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How does social media influence our mental health?

The impact of persistent and damaging comparisons with the lives of others on social media may be a driver of poor mental health, new research has revealed.

The finding forms part of the Centre for Mental Health’s new briefing paper, Social Media, young people and mental health.

The report, published this week, looks at evidence about the impact of social media use on the mental health of young people, both positively and negatively.

While the negative impacts of social media have been widely publicised, the briefing paper looks at existing evidence to create a “three-dimensional” picture of the many ways young people interact with social platforms to reduce the risks and make the most of the opportunities they present.

Among the risks, the report notes that addiction or dependency on social media is widespread, with around five per cent of the adolescent population described as “social media addicts”. The symptoms of addiction can include loss of sleep, either through extended use or broken sleep due to checking notifications during the night, and finding it difficult to relax after using social media.

Both of these symptoms can lead to poorer mental health, the report says, with lack of sleep often attributed to a decline in mental wellbeing.

Other risks of prolonged social media use include comparing the lives of others against yourself on an almost daily basis. This can lead to reducing mental wellbeing if users focus solely on the positive experiences of others.

But social media does present helpful opportunities. These include the creation of new social connections and the ability to reach out to others for help on mental health issues, as well as give advice based on users’ own experiences.

Commenting on the briefing paper, Centre for Mental Health chief executive Sarah Hughes said: “Social media use is fundamental to many of our lives today, and particularly those of young people. Public and political debate about social media and mental health has so far been polarised and often lacking in evidence.

“Blaming social media for mental health difficulties with many complex causes simply alienates the young people whose lives are being debated and social media companies who could do more to help young people to thrive.”

Ms Hughes added: “We need a new start that starts with the experiences of young people, that understands the context in which social media exist in young people’s lives and that seeks solutions which will make a difference.”

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