AN ACCELERANT ON THE FIRE: SOCIAL MEDIA, SMARTPHONES AND YOUNG PEOPLE’S MENTAL HEALTH

In Australia, as in other Western countries, there has been a sharp deterioration in adolescent mental health over the last decade. Around 40% of young women, and 20% of young men, now have an anxiety disorder. Around 20% of young women, and 10% of young men now have an affective disorder such as depression. These patterns in Australia are mirrored in other parts of the Western world.

In the search for explanations and solutions, there has been a particular focus on the adverse effects of youth-focused social media in the age of the smartphone. Rates of anxiety and depression amongst teenagers increased rapidly from about 2012 onwards, when smartphones began to be ubiquitous and young people’s social lives became more and more based on digital forms of communication. However, data from Australia and elsewhere on teenage self-harming behaviour contradicts the thesis that the advent of youth-focused social media apps caused a sudden increase in adolescent mental health problems. Rather, the evidence is that it was an accelerant to an already raging fire. Rates of self-harming behaviour have been rising rapidly ever since the mid-1990s, and other indicia of adolescent mental health problems have also increased significantly over recent decades.

Prominent amongst the explanations for this must be the growth in the number of children who experience family instability or who are not well-integrated socially. These are dimensions of relational poverty for children and young people that have profound impacts upon their well-being.