Social media is far from perfect, but it's not the major cause of poor mental health outcomes

07/05/2021

After an Oxford study found that there is minimal association between technology use and mental health issues, our Campaigns Officer, Kirsty Archer, went into more detail about what are some of the major causes of poor mental health outcomes.

So often when speaking to people outside of work about what needs to change in modern life to address poor mental health experiences, social media and technology comes up in conversation.

However, this week new research was published which found that there remains "little association" between technology use and mental-health problems. The huge study, which assessed over 400,000 teenagers, counters the commonly held view that social media and technology are the most significant source of modern day poor mental health outcomes.

  • As someone who works in the campaigns team to bring about change, it has become somewhat of a gripe that social media tends to dominate these conversations around mental health.

As someone who works in the campaigns team to bring about change, it has become somewhat of a gripe that social media tends to dominate these conversations around mental health. Our research has shown for years that the biggest issues affecting people severely affected by mental illness are: the unfair and punitive welfare system that drives many to poverty, or people struggling to access the right treatment at the right time, or the lack of community support available for people leaving in-patient services when they are recovering from a mental health crisis. That’s why Rethink Mental Illness isn’t just a service provider, but we also campaign on all these issues to mobilise public and parliamentary support for the policy changes needed to improve the lives of all those affected by mental illness.

But it’s not surprising that social media is brought up so much in relation to mental health, given the ample coverage given to the topic in the media and from politicians. The topic has been the focus of nine parliamentary debates in the past five years, an All Party Parliamentary Group on social media has been set up and investigated this link, and last year the government issued a white paper and consultation on online harms, where the impact of social media on mental health, particularly that of children and young people, was a key point of discussion. All of this has given life into the idea that social media is one of the main factors that people associate with poor mental health outcomes as a matter of “common sense.”

  • Now, it’s important to stress that this article is not suggesting there is no link at all.

Now, it’s important to stress that this article is not suggesting there is no link at all. The authors of the new Oxford study said that: "These results don’t mean that technology is all good for teens, or all bad, or getting worse for teenagers or not. Even with some of the larger data sets available to scientists, it is difficult conclusively to determine the roles of technologies in young people’s lives, and how their impacts might change over time." So while it’s unlikely that social media is a significant driver of poor mental health outcomes, this isn’t to say that it doesn’t have well documented problems. Notably the lack of moderation on abusive and racist content on social media, for example.

Risks do exist and have been highlighted through aforementioned work by government and in parliament and by colleagues in the mental health sector, such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

However, given the size of the study, it is difficult to argue that its findings are insignificant. The evidence it offers suggests that the coverage given to the issue may be disproportionate in comparison with other key issues. Let’s hope we can now shift the narrative so that other factors causing significant harm are given the same level of attention in future conversations on mental health.

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