Misuse of social media worsening adolescent mental health, says psychologist
GLOBAL statistics indicate that between 10 to 20 per cent of adolescents face mental health hurdles with anxiety, depression and behaviour problems appearing to be the most common conditions. When the lens zooms in on Jamaica, it reveals a poignant snapshot: 15 per cent of Jamaican adolescents display symptoms synonymous with depression and anxiety.
The local data is according to a 2019 study by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) titled ‘Mind the Gap: The Inadequacy of Mental Health Services for Children’.
While it’s true that mental health challenges among adolescents have long-standing roots, licensed associate clinical psychologist Chad Lambert asserts that their rapid growth in recent times can be significantly attributed to what he describes as the misuse of social media.
This assertion gains further credence from a 2018 survey conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) through U-Report Jamaica, engaging 902 responders out of 3,124 individuals polled. The study uncovered insightful perceptions and experiences of Jamaican youth regarding the intersection of social media and mental health.
Notably, 64 per cent of the 0-14 age group and 47 per cent of the 15-19 age group acknowledged that social media affects their mental health. In a recent interview, Lambert explained that many adolescents are trapped in the vortex of passive social media usage, which, coupled with poor sleep, intensifies mental health challenges.
The situation, as he sees it, not only underscores the pressing nature of mental health challenges but also shines a spotlight on the need for better support services for Jamaican youths.
“Teens are now spending longer hours engaged in passive use [mindlessly scrolling and comparing their lives to others], which does not allow for cognitive engagement such as utilising creativity for self-expression or problem-solving,” he states.
He continues: “Conversely, even when some teens actively use social media, they are subjected to cyberbullying and other unhealthy interactions. As a result, many adolescents are simply choosing to [passively] remain on social media rather than getting quality, consecutive hours of sleep.”
The U-Report survey complements these insights revealing diverse engagement patterns in daily social media usage, with 44 per cent spending 0-5 hours, 27 per cent spending 6-10 hours, and a combined 29 per cent spending more than 10 hours online. It also delved into the potential toxicity of social media environments, with 86 per cent of the 807 respondents believing that social media has the potential to be a toxic environment.
In tandem with this, Lambert observes that the design of modern communities may inadvertently contribute to the isolation and disconnection many of them experience.
“Our adolescents are quite knowledgeable on the basics of mental health, but struggle with the action component in terms of changing behaviours to reduce or eliminate symptoms. Couple this with the fact that a number of communities are no longer designed with creating interactive environments for children and adolescents,” he shares.
Lambert underscores the transformative potential of community engagement, stating, “I believe if the adults in the community could model creating face-to-face connections with their neighbours and host fun, supportive community events that target both adults and children, then adolescents will experience the benefits of being in a green space, engaging in physical activity and fostering connection with others. As a result, they will also have less time for their devices.”
Furthermore, Lambert highlights the crucial role of parents in influencing adolescent mental health. He advises parents to practise healthy, assertive communication and create an environment of openness where adolescents feel heard and understood, as this can be instrumental in their mental well-being.
“Conversations that allow for openness and non-judgement can serve as coping as they are given a space to express and work through their thoughts and feelings. Asking questions that lead to discussions such as, on a scale of one to 10, how would you rate how you’re feeling today and why?, can show children that you are curious and interested in their well-being,” Lambert explained.
He also emphasises the importance of consistently engaging in activities that promote mental well-being. He suggests that by being proactive and incorporating regular device-free family activities, adolescents can better grasp the significance of daily mental health maintenance, rather than addressing it only when feeling unwell.
“Helping children to develop hobbies, especially ones that involve physical activity, creativity and abstract thinking will give them the opportunity to develop skills and engage in activities that are known for decreasing anxiety and mood-related symptoms. It is important that parents try to model these coping mechanisms in order for adolescents to see the potential benefits,” he advised.
And beyond community and familial roles, there’s a broader societal responsibility, Lambert noted.
“Education is key. As a society, I believe our knowledge is improving and therefore, education campaigns should be more focused on debunking misconceptions and providing real-life examples of mental health challenges. Additionally, [they should] highlight help-seeking behaviours and the benefits associated with getting professional help,” he said.
Lambert also highlighted that the growing recognition and enhanced awareness surrounding mental health have empowered both adolescents and their parents to discern and identify potential mental health issues.
To this end, he applauded the Adolescent Mental Health Conference held January 20 at the Jamaica Conference Centre. A project of the Chevening Alumni network in Jamaica in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the Ministry of Education, the event aimed to bridge the mental health support gap for Jamaican youth aged 13-19. The conference offered specialised training tracks for both adolescents and parents.
Lambert underscored the significance of such initiatives, stressing their role in fostering dialogue, education, and actionable outcomes concerning the challenges faced by young people.
“Having adults learn from adolescents about mental health issues and how they present among teenagers can help parents understand the realities straight from the source. Sharing their experiences can both be cathartic for teens and eye-opening for parents, who sometimes understand that these issues exist, but don’t always recognise that it’s also close to home or directly within the home,”he said.