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Is social media causing childhood depression?

Rangan Chatterjee is a GP and says he has seen plenty of evidence of the link between mental ill-health in youngsters and their use of social media.

One 16 year-old boy was referred to him after he self-harmed and ended up in A&E.

“The first thought was to put him on anti-depressants but I chatted to him and it sounded like his use of social media was having a negative impact on his health.”

So Dr Chatterjee suggested a simple solution – the teenager should attempt to wean himself off social media, restricting himself to just an hour before he went to bed. Over the course of a few weeks, he should extend this to two hours at night and two in the morning.

“He reported a significant improvement in his wellbeing and, after six months, I had a letter from his mother saying he was happier at school and integrated into the local community.”

That and similar cases have led him to question the role social media plays in the lives of young people.

“Social media is having a negative impact on mental health,” he said. “I do think it is a big problem and that we need some rules. How do we educate society to use technology so it helps us rather than harms us?”

A 2017 study by The Royal Society of Public Health asked 1,500 young people aged 11-25 to track their moods while using the five most popular social media sites.

It suggested Snapchat and Instagram were the most likely to inspire feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. YouTube had the most positive influence.

Seven in 10 said Instagram made them feel worse about body image and half of 14-24-year-olds reported Instagram and Facebook exacerbated feelings of anxiety. Two-thirds said Facebook made cyber-bullying worse.

Consultant psychiatrist Louise Theodosiou says one of the clearest indications children are spending too long on their phones is their behaviour during a session with a psychiatrist.

“Two or three years ago, it was very unusual for a child to answer their phone or text during an appointment. But now it is common,” said the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital doctor.

She has seen a rise in cases where social media is a contributing factor in teenage depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. These problems are often complex and wide-ranging – from excessive use of gaming or social media sites to feelings of inadequacy brought on by a constant bombardment of social media images of other people’s lives, to cyber-bullying.

Often such children will refuse to travel to psychiatrist appointments, so a range of professionals have to make home visits to deal with the issue. It can take months to persuade them to leave their bedrooms.

“These kids are living in a fictional world, sometimes to the detriment of their physical health. They might have physical ill-health, like toothache, but they are still not wanting to leave their virtual worlds,” she said.

Dr Theodosiou has seen first-hand how difficult it can be for parents. She has heard of some sleeping with the home router to make sure the children cannot connect to the wi-fi in the middle of the night.

Even for those children whose social media use may be judged normal, there are still dangers in the way the internet has become a conduit into the lives of friends and celebrities.