A national campaign urging us all to spend less time on our phones is prompted by widespread mental health issues among young people. Georgette McCready talks to a counselling service about what can be done to help

The internet, created to bring humans closer together and to improve our communication with each other, has thrown up an unfortunate side effect – a massive rise in the number of people suffering from mental health issues as a result of their online lives. British comedian Russell Kane has publicly, and bravely, spoken recently about receiving counselling to tackle his addiction to social media. He said his compulsive behaviour was affecting his life and likened the lure and addictive nature of social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook to the drug cocaine.Cases such as these are not rare, and so great is our addiction to digital technology that the Royal Society for Public Health has felt it necessary to launch a campaign called Scroll-Free September which is advising us to take a break from social media for the 30 days of September. Even if we feel unable to refrain for an entire month, the Society invites us to consider and to ration the number of times we check our phones each day. For professionals in the south west of England, that call to wean ourselves away from our phones comes far too late after the genie has left the bottle. Counsellors have been dealing with an increasing number of cases of young people whose mental health has been affected by use of social media.

Jan Robertson is the chief executive and founder of Focus Counselling, based in the crypt of St Michael’s Church, Broad Street, Bath. She says: “We have been talking about this issue for the past five years. It’s only been in the last academic year that schools have really started to tackle this problem. And it really is a widespread problem.”

Beyond spending too much time peering into their screens, what harm is using social media doing to our 11 to 18 year-olds? I ask Jan: “It’s causing massive amounts of anxiety. We’re dealing with many, many cases of young people who are suffering from anxiety. It blights their lives and the anxiety can lead to panic attacks, depression, self-harm – a whole range of issues.”

HOW TO SPOT IF A YOUNG PERSON IS BEING NEGATIVELY AFFECTED BY SOCIAL MEDIA
Your child becomes withdrawn.
Your child needs their phone with them all the time – then you know something is going on.
Your child behaves out of character, perhaps opting out of meals or avoiding seeing friends.

Focus Counselling sees more than 100 clients of all ages a week and many of them are suffering from low self-esteem and from a range of anxiety-related symptoms. Jan says a typical case of social media bullying might begin with a teenager posting an innocent bikini-clad holiday photo of herself on Snapchat and sharing it with her friends. But, once in the hands of someone else, with malevolent intent, that image can be manipulated and distributed in such a way that the original subject feels exposed and belittled. Jan says: “Cyber bullying is rife and deeply unpleasant. They will attack everything about you, from your hair and the way you dress, to your parents and the way you talk. We can’t simply suggest that someone turns their phone off and ignore it, it’s much more invidious than that.”

She explained that users of social media – regardless of age, experience or which platform they’re using – get a buzz of endorphin for every like, follow or share that they receive. It is a very human response to crave validation from others. We all want to be popular and liked. The problem is when that becomes addictive or when people on these platforms use abusive or inappropriate behaviour. It is also common for people to try and show that they are living idyllic, happy lives through their social media and carefully posed images, which creates unrealistic expectations for them of how life actually is, and for those viewing their posts. Jan and her fellow counsellors believe that Instagram and Snapchat, being image-based platforms, are potentially the most damaging for young people’s self-image and esteem. She also added that television shows which show young men and women with improbably perfect figures and faces also engender feelings of inadequacy in their followers. “The cult of celebrity can be very damaging for young people, trying to match up to a so-called perfect life,” she observes with her many years of experience and as a parent herself.

It is worth noting that every post we put on the internet leaves an indelible footprint that others will be able to trace, so be wary of posting anything which might come back to haunt you. As a general rule, says Jan, keep it light when it comes to your virtual life.

Focus Counselling is currently working with schools in the south west, both in the private and public sector, to teach children as young as 11 how to be savvy about the internet. They will also be working with teachers to help them cope with the issues arising from young people’s social media habits. Currently most schools find it impractical to separate students from their phones during the school day, but instead allow them free use at break times.A recent report by the Legatum Institute, a charitable think-tank, found that Britain’s approach to adolescence is marked by ‘a profound cultural confusion’ in which young people feel isolated and and without a clear function in society other than to gain formal academic education. The institute has urged parents to put down their own phones and engage their offspring in conversation to avert the country’s very real mental health crisis.

Parents who would like to seek help or advice can get in touch with the charity Focus Counselling on 01225 330096, visit: focusbath.com. Off the Record also works with young people in the Bath and North East Somerset area, tackling issues such as depression, anxiety and relationships. Visit: offtherecord-banes.co.uk.


AS PARENTS AND CARERS, HOW CAN WE HELP?

  • Set a good example. Don’t spend all your time looking at your own phone. Insist on the whole family leaving their phones in the kitchen overnight. This prevents the online bullying intruding into sleep time.
  • Leave it as long as you can before you give in to demands to have social media accounts or a phone of their own.
  • Make family meals a regular occurrence, so people can talk to each other. Nobody need have their phone with them while they’re eating.
  • Learn how social media works. It’s not going to go away, so start your own Instagram or Facebook account. Like any tool, it can be useful. It’s also a useful way of showing your child that you understand a little of how their world works.
  • Encourage your family to use WhatsApp. It’s free, it’s private and you can form your own family or friendship groups. Texting is private and a quick way to keep in touch.