Social media and teen mental health: Wake up! Speak up!

The mental health implications of social media
The mental health implications of social media

“Horrific” and “deeply troubling”. Those were the words of the children’s commissioner for England last week, accusing social media companies of losing control of the content they carry on suicide and self-harm – content that is openly and easily accessible to young people.

Studies have linked social media to a serious rise in mental ill-health among young people and have been blamed for an increase in suicides in both the UK and the US. We can assume what is happening in those countries, is also happening in South Africa.

What are some of your thoughts or experiences with teens mental health and social media? Send us your comments and we could publish them. Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.

A couple of days earlier, at the World Economic Forum’s meeting at Davos, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, in a session focusing on mental health, referred to celebrities who refused to become involved in the Heads Together initiative to break the silence and the stigma around mental health. Why not? Oh, they “did not want to be associated with mental health”.

Clearly, it’s a case of “Houston, we have a problem”. And not just a problem – a huge one.

Last year on World Mental Health Awareness Day the “problem” was already called a “global crisis”. Well, it will not go away if we ignore it. But we can all make a difference, and exactly now: from 10 to 17 February it is Teenage Suicide Prevention Week in South Africa – please get involved.

Also see: 5 things schools can do to help pupils’ mental health

But first the issue of that “horrific” and “deeply troubling” content on social media websites, accessible to anyone who can type in a combination of words on their search engine. 

In her open letter to Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Pinterest and Snapchat, England’s children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said teenage suicides have highlighted the “horrific” material that children were able to access so easily online. Her call came in the wake of UK Health Minister Matt Hancock’s warning to social media companies that he will use the law if they fail to remove inappropriate content. 

These appeals follow after it became clear that the Instagram account of a 14-year-old teenager who died of suicide contained “distressing material” – content she easily accessed online. Hancock said social media platforms should do their part to protect teenagers from such graphic material. Indeed, it should be part of tackling mental health issues among the youth.

In Britain suicide has become the leading cause of death for young people under 20. Simultaneously, levels of self-harm are rising alarmingly, especially among girls. In Africa suicide has increased with 38% between 2000 and 2012, with a peak among the youth.

Also see: How to talk to your child about suicide

Professional mainstream news media companies have professional codes (or should have) on how they report on mental health and suicide. This is not only ethical, but part of important public education and an attempt to help erode centuries’ old layers of stigma and stereotyping due to ignorance about a biological, clinical illness.

In pre-modern times these illnesses were neither understood nor diagnosed as diseases that affect our most important organ, our brain – our engine of life. If certain biological processes do not take place anymore, that engine starts to malfunction – just as other organs would when they fall ill. And as with other diseases, it can develop to a terminal stage.  

And yes, mainstream media are struggling to get it right, despite their ethical codes. In reporting on suicides, the suicide method especially should not be mentioned, as this can lead to what is termed the Werther effect (after the death of the tragic hero in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther), also called copycat suicides. This was indeed the case after the death of actor Robin Williams with studies showing how suicide rates increased after his death. 

Also see: Teaching teens to use social media, and use it wisely

To describe us human beings at the beginning of this technology-driven Fourth Industrial Revolution as hares in the headlights is an understatement. In fact, we are bewildered human beings caught up in a social media tsunami.

But of course, we are neither helpless, nor hopeless. We can do something – but social media also need to accept their responsibility. Indeed, one can simply press the button on that mobile device and “switch off”, but how many of us are social media literate enough in this frightening new age of the digi-sphere to just “switch off”? And if adults cannot keep that tiny high tech gadget under control, how can we expect youngsters to?

So yes, social media companies must take responsibility for those easily accessible “horrific” and “harmful content” on depression and suicide by removing it from their websites. But we as the public also need to take responsibility.

The first is to teach our children to become social media citizens in our terrifying age of ultratech. Our Department of Education needs to build social media literacy into Life Orientation programmes.

Included in the curriculum should not only be how to become social media literate citizens, and thus how to protect ourselves from harmful content that is so freely available, but also what social codes for social media behaviour are. So often it is rather a case of a-social media, because it unleashes our most a-social behaviour.

How does one act – and importantly, react – as online citizen? And how can one monitor the social media sphere to ensure it has not turned into a toxic virtual school playground where bullying is rampant, yet no one can see, nor hear, it?

Also see: 13 reasons to talk about teen suicide 

And then there is the real issue of not seeing and not hearing. As certain celebrities did when they were asked to join Heads Together, the initiative in which the young British royals are involved. As a new generation, they want to help break the silence and the stigma around mental health. But no thank you, certain celebrities told them. They would “rather not be associated with mental health issues”. And that, maybe, is our real problem.

Ignorance about depression and related illnesses is stealing the lives of our loved ones right in front of our eyes because we would rather not be confronted with the reality of mental ill-health, even though we now know that more than 90% of suicide deaths have depression as leading cause of death. And that suicide rates are rising among the young.

How sad that we have almost reached 2020, when depression will be the world’s second leading illness according to the World Health Organisation. By 2030 it will be the biggest. One recent study estimates the global mental health crisis could cost $16 trillion by 2030.

With mental disorders on the rise in every country in the world, the co-author of a new study on the global mental health crisis, Prof Vikram Patel of Harvard Medical School, taxed the situation as “extremely bleak”, saying no country is “investing enough”. Also, “No other health condition in humankind has been neglected as much as mental health has.” 

But we can all do something about it. From the Big Tech companies who have to take responsibility for the horrific content so easily accessible with the push of a button, to us, the public. It starts with you.


Also see: Young people are more anxious than ever – and they don’t even know it

Did you know?

From 10 to 17 February it is Teen Suicide Prevention Week. Especially schools can use next week as a golden opportunity to allow learners to open up about mental health. Empower all of them as ambassadors of hope with the message: Depression is a treatable disease and suicide a preventable tragedy. Go to SADAG’s site to download a brochure that will help you make a difference.

Look out for these symptoms:

• Feelings of sadness, anxiety or emptiness for longer than two weeks;

• difficulty concentrating or to remember; 

• being indecisive; 

• felling tired and without energy, worthless, hopeless, negative, irritable and desperate; 

• cannot sleep, or sleep badly, or sleep too much; 

• irritation and restlessness;

 • nothing is interesting anymore;

• eating too much or too little;

• experiencing involuntary thoughts about suicide, called suicide ideation.

 • Make an appointment with your GP to assess your condition. Get help. 

Also see: 1 in 4 SA varsity students have been diagnosed with depression

Help is available:

Stellenbosch University Professor Lizette Rabe is the founder of the Ithemba Foundation – ithemba means hope – to raise awareness of depression as biological disease and to support research into depression. Become an ambassador of hope – go to for more information.

Chat back:

What are some of your thoughts or experiences with teens' mental health and social media? Send us your comments and we could publish them. Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.

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Read more: 

Here's the key to lifelong good mental health for your kids

Being moody isn't a mental health issue

WATCH: How gogos in Zimbabwe are tackling depression with the Friendship Bench

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