Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety I
Black Mirror: given the rise of mental health issues linked to the use of social media, which measures can be taken to ensure the safety and well-being of young people in Europe?
The Topic in Depth
written by Ricarda Pfingstl (AT)
The global mental health situation is critical - at least one in four individuals will encounter a mental disorder throughout their lives, while most of them will never get adequate treatment. Especially going through a year-long pandemic, experts warn of the development of (long-term) mental health issues that follow loneliness, social exclusion (due to sickness), lack of daily routine, fear of contagion or loss of job and loved ones. Prior to the pandemic, national governments were spending less than 2% of their national health budgets on mental health, and struggling to meet their populations’ needs.
Stigmatisation, discrimination and the lack of access to mental health care, followed by denial, limited awareness and hopelessness further facilitate the alienation of affected individuals. In our hectic modern world the prevention of mental illnesses is facing new challenges through social media.
The right to mental mental health is one of the fundamental human rights recognised by the international community, secured under the right to health in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN Sustainable Development Goal №3.
Young people are one of the most vulnerable population groups when it comes to mental disorders. Half of all mental disorders begin by the age of 14 and three-quarters by mid-20s. Mental illnesses and neuropsychiatric disorders are the leading cause of disability in young people worldwide. The situation is worsened by the fact that Generation Z’ers today are at much greater risk due to their extensive usage of social media on a daily basis. Statistics indicate that the Gen Z representatives are more likely to self-harm, suffer from poor body image and eating disorders, skip sleep and experience depressive symptoms than any other generation before. Despite the general decline in suicide rates, suicide remains the second-highest cause of death among people aged 15-29 globally; and 90% of suicides result from untreated mental disorders.
Social media appears to cause many health problems. At the same time, social media is an integral component of our (social) lives since it allows us to connect to friends and family, in particular in times where physical distancing is key to combat a global pandemic. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 the usage of social media has risen steeply. Higher use of social media is linked to issues such as depression, anxiety and/or loneliness, as well as aggression and anti-social behaviour. Moreover, Internet platforms have been found largely responsible for suicide and self-harm ideation and the romantisation of mental disorders.Parents of children who tragically died by taking their own lives often find that their kids were viewing graphic images of self-harm, despite social media platforms acting to remove such content. Self-harm levels keep rising - for instance, in 2018 in the United Kingdom alone nearly one in four 14-year-old girls self-injured at least once.
The issue can be linked back to how social media platforms operate. Content on the Internet is, to a large extent, free for users. Social media companies however get their revenue by monetising the user’s attention for example through ads. As a result, push notifications, strategic use of colours, algorithmic content suggestions and many more influence the user’s behaviour and prolong the time they spend on their platforms. Algorithms are designed to provide content similar to what the user interacted with previously, with the risk of being exposed to increasingly extreme content. Social media platforms are generally designed to activate the reward centres of the brain therefore have a similar addictive impact on the user’s health comparable to poker machines, or drug use. Especially young people are more vulnerable to be influenced by design triggering the reward centres and, overall, social approval which is expressed through messages, likes and notifications.
created by Juliana Wong (FI)
Food for Thought
How can social media be made into a safer space especially for young people?
How can mental health issues, particularly with children and young people, be better prevented and treated?
How can we ensure that social media does not trigger mental health problems without impacting freedom of expression and use of such platforms?
Should social media platforms be allowed to monetise the attention and knowingly influence the behaviour of their users?
Are algorithms causing filter bubbles and rabbit holes a curse or a blessing?
How far are tech companies responsible for what is posted on their platforms?
A European Mental Health Action Plan by WHO Europe (2013-2020)
Mental health, resilience and inequalities - a report by WHO Europe (2009)
European pact for mental health and well-being - a resolution from the EU High-level conference ‘Together for mental health and well-being’, (2008)
A Ted-Talk on the ways social media affects one’s mental health, TedX Talks, Youtube (2017)
A series of articles on mental health by the Guardian
A short documentary on youth mental health, Burnt Pages, Youtube (2016)
The international declaration on youth mental health - an action plan and a shared vision by IAYMH
A research on the links between social media usage and youth mental health, Jonathan Glazzard and Samuel Stones (2019)