Social media triggers decline in teenagers' self-esteem, study finds

Social media triggers a sharp decline in teenagers’ mental health, causing the most damage to the self-esteem of girls aged 14 to 17, study finds

  • Amount of girls unhappy with their looks rises from 15% aged 11 to 29% at age 14 
  • Self-esteem falls in adolescence and continues to decline in late teens for boys 
  • Figures come from a survey of 5,000 young people who were born around 2000 

Social media triggers sharp declines in teenagers’ mental health, causing the most damage to the self-esteem of girls aged 14 to 17, a new study has found.

Research from the Education Policy Institute and the Prince’s Trust found wellbeing and self-esteem levels are similar in boys and girls at the end of primary school.

However, while the mental wellbeing of both genders begins to drop in their teens, girls see a far greater decrease once they reach 14, according to research of around 5,000 young people born around the year 2000. 

While around one in seven girls reported being unhappy with the way they look at the end of primary school, the figure rises to nearly one in three by age 14.

Girls also experience more depressive symptoms such as hopelessness, according to the report, while boys are more likely to struggle with their self-esteem into their late teens.

Heavy use of social media has been associated with declines in wellbeing and self-esteem in girls ages 14 and 17, and worse wellbeing for 14-year-old boys

Research used data from surveys of young people who were asked questions about their mental health, wellbeing and self-esteem at the ages of 11, 14 and 17. 

It said that, on average, the wellbeing of all young people drops as they move into secondary school and continues to fall through adolescence, with girls seeing a far greater decline.

Self-esteem also falls on average as children move into adolescence; however, while it stabilises for girls as they move into their late teens, it continues to fall for boys.

Focus groups were carried out in November 2020, allowing researchers to include the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Generation Z.

The report said the pandemic has led to increased issues in mental health, with the number of young people with a probable mental illness rising from one in nine in 2017 to one in six.

Mental health and wellbeing were linked to a number of factors in the research, including family income, frequency of exercise, and poor maternal health.

While self-esteem and wellbeing are roughly the same for boys and girls at the end of primary school, their reported happiness dropped by age 14 – with self esteem continuing to drop among young men into their late teens

It also found that heavy use of social media was associated with declines in wellbeing and self-esteem in girls ages 14 and 17, and worse wellbeing for 14-year-old boys.

Jonathan Townsend, UK chief executive of the Prince’s Trust, called for quick action to ‘prevent scarring this generation’s future’.

He said: ‘The transition from childhood to adolescence can be turbulent, and the findings of this report underline why addressing and supporting young people’s mental health will only become more crucial as the impact of the pandemic unfolds.

‘Young people are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, so it is more important than ever that they can access support with their mental health during this critical time in their lives.

‘In particular, the decline in young people’s wellbeing and self-esteem as they go into their mid to late teens shows the need for early intervention and ongoing support to prevent future harm and potential mental health crises.’

The report made several recommendations, including a £650 million post-pandemic package to schools for wellbeing funding, matching academic catch-up funding.

It also called for an increase in mental health teaching, the publication of a plan for rolling out four-week waiting times for specialist mental health care, and ensuring all young people can take part in physical activity.

Geoff Barton, general secretary from the Association of School and College leaders, called for a greater focus on children’s mental health, warning lockdown had ‘exacerbated a problem that already of huge concern’ 

Richard Crellin, policy manager at The Children’s Society, said the findings were shocking but not surprising, adding: ‘The Government cannot ignore these figures and it is time for drastic action, without it we risk a generation of young people facing a lifetime of poor mental health.’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the impact of coronavirus has ‘exacerbated a problem that was already of huge concern to school leaders before the pandemic struck’ and called for a greater focus on children’s mental health.

A Government spokesperson said: ‘We are absolutely committed to supporting the mental wellbeing of children and young people, particularly through the challenges of this pandemic which have uniquely impacted this generation.

‘Early intervention and treatment is vital and we are training a new dedicated mental health workforce for schools and colleges across the country as well as teaching what good mental and physical health looks like.’

Tools to support children and young people’s mental wellbeing were available through the Every Mind Matters website, they said, adding that mental health services for children and young people were being expanded through the NHS Long Term Plan ‘to support an additional 345,000 individuals by 2023/24, backed by record investment of an extra £2.3 billion per year’.

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