A new piece of research from Story Terrace (an organisation helping people tell their story) is asking us to get more in touch with each other. This call to action is based on findings that suggest millenials (those born 1981-1996) are most susceptible to mental illness due to loneliness. And social media is apparently to blame.
Loneliness Knows My Name
Loneliness in those my age is not unheard of. In fact it’s very heard of. It seems to be incredibly common and a simple google search will show countless articles echoing this sentiment.
A recent YouGov survey into loneliness found that 3 in 10 millennials say they always or often feel lonely. This surpasses both Baby Boomers and Generation X. We’re also more likely to report having no acquaintances, no friends, no close friends and no best friends. On the plus side, 70% reported having at least one best friend and 49% said they have 1 – 4 close friends. The reasons to explain this loneliness wasn’t fully examined but they point the finger at social media and the internet.
Whose To Blame?
Just like the YouGov study the explanations point the finger in the same direction. They both quote a study by the University of Pennsylvania suggesting that social media and a lack in communication abilities is to blame. Psychologist Melissa G. Hunt who conducted the study claims:
“Here’s the bottom line: Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness”
But I still think a piece of the puzzle is missing. We may be a more technologically linked up generation than ever before. Many of us will remember getting that Nokia phone and playing snake for hours. Or the pure joy of a flip phone. We’ll remember the advent of Facebook – now considered ‘old people social media’ as I was informed by one group of kids I was working with. Some of us may remember 5 TV channels and dial up WiFi. And yet.
Leveling the Playing Field
Whilst research cannot and should not be ignored I still think we’re missing part of the picture. It’s too easy to blame low levels of wellbeing, increased loneliness or higher incidences of mental illness on social media. It may be one piece of the jigsaw puzzle but it’s not the whole.
For one, the research is not all negative despite what the media headlines would have us believe. Certainly the Happiful article which first attracted my attention to this research focuses solely on the negative impact of social media. There was no re-balance or mention of the positive affects it can generate too. In a 2015 study by University of Missouri (summary here) whilst evidence suggested regular use could lead to symptoms of depression it also found that those using the sight to feel connected to others do not experience the same negative effects.
In Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by Sarah Jayne Blakemore she quotes a 2015 study from University of Oxford and Cardiff Universities that found low levels of screen-time (TV, phone use, internet, email and socializing) was associated with low wellbeing as was high levels of screen-time. There was, however, a sweet spot where moderate use could boost wellbeing. Whilst this doesn’t directly address social media alone it does show that there can be benefits to social media.
Scapegoating Social Media
What I’ve Read in the Media
Another thing I find profoundly unhelpful is that the personal experience of one group of people seems to drown out that of the other. What do I mean by this? In my experience the headlines, unbalanced news articles I’m looking at you, engender panic particularly in parents and those that work with young people. We hear only one side of the story. In short, we’re hearing whoever shouts the loudest. As we know, panic and drama sell.
What we don’t necessarily hear are the voices of those who are the subjects of the discussions. In an editorial by The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health titled Editorial: Screen time, social media and developing brains: a cause for good or corrupting young minds? it begins by discussing a debate on social media with young people at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2018. The following happened:
“One young person held up his smartphone and stated ‘this is my heroin – it’s the heroin of our generation’. In contrast, another young person argued ‘I don’t agree – this is my life line, I am a looked-after child living on my own, and it’s the only way i have of keeping in touch with my family and friends’.”.
Whilst this debate wasn’t directly aimed at millennial’s it does highlight the spectrum of opinion within a generation. We can only imagine the difference of opinion within a society.
What I’ve Experienced
This also reflects my own experience working with young people and young professionals. Some feel incredibly attached to their phones and acknowledge that this relationship isn’t always healthy. They recognise that although they logically know that photos on Instagram and Snapchat are often filtered and edited that it can still impact their self-esteem and wellbeing. They will confess guiltily to me that sometimes they’re on social media so late at night that they get less sleep than they should. Many know they’re overly committed to their Snapchat streaks and their curated social media presence.
But. For every person who tells me this there’s one who relies on their phone and social media. Similar to those in the University of Missouri study some millennial’s find a home or a community online. I know I have. For many social media is a place to find like-minded individuals. It’s a place people feel safe. I’ve seen numerous tweets on Twitter from people saying that when they don’t feel good about the people around them they can come online and receive affirmations and encouragement. When their wellbeing is low or their symptoms of their mental illness flare up social media and the community they find there is where they turn.
On top of the social benefits we know many people use social media to learn more, to stay engaged with current events, to promote blogs, to find jobs, to network, to make money. The list goes on.
Not Just Social Media
The original Story Terrace research also found the following:
- More than 1 in 5 people don’t think their friends really listen when they talk about their worries or issues.
- More than 1 in 10 people say they don’t have time to have meaningful conversations with their loved ones or vice versa.
- Over 7.5 million people haven’t taken the time to reflect on their life and what they’ve managed to achieve through the years.
These are just a few of the findings but it occurs to me that there are other issues with our society that this research reveals. To me it’s part of a wider problem about the way we connect and listen. You can read my thoughts on how to listen here. We’re lacking in skills to connect with each other face-to-face as well as screen-to-screen.
Another issue seems to be time. There’s no such think as a 9/5 job anymore. Everyone seems to be working every hour under the sun and then some. On top of this there’s family and friends, hobbies, health and fitness, volunteering, advocacy etc. that people are juggling too. What we seem to need is more hours in the day. But that’s impossible. So we need to shift our focus. In the words of E.M. Forster:
“Personal relations are the important thing for ever and ever, and not this outer life of telegrams and anger.”
― E.M. Forster, Howards End
So what are your thoughts on social media? How does it impact your wellbeing? Where do you stand on issue? Let us know by commenting below!