A picture says a thousand words. Or so they say. And in our visual culture, this has come to mean more than ever as image based social media, such as Instagram and Snapchat, are more popular than ever.

As youth and children’s workers, we’re very aware of the struggles that young people have with their mental health, particularly issues around anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders, and so I’m interested to read the new findings from the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) about the relationship between young people’s social media usage and their mental health and wellbeing.  The report identifies a number of key findings, including Instagram and Snapchat being the platforms identified by young people as most negatively affecting their mental health, and that youth workers should be equipped with the training to support young people around the effects of digital media on young people’s health and wellbeing.

The report was released at the same time that I was training a group of youth workers from across the UK to run our ‘I’m The Girl I Want To Be’ self-esteem course in their local schools and communities, resourcing them with tools to explore these issues in a relevant and engaging way. I’m so pleased that there are youth workers across the UK who are passionate about exploring issues of self-worth, identity, mental health and social media with their young people- not shying away from the issue, but tackling it head on with compassion and understanding.  Often I hear from youth and children’s workers about feeling unsure how to tackle these huge issues with their young people, especially with concerns around safeguarding online making them wary to connect with young people online, but I believe that we have a real opportunity to help our young people navigate this new terrain.

I’ve been recently struck at how Snapchat filters have become common place in our young people’s online lives. Maybe you yourself are a fan of becoming a bunny, or perhaps vomiting rainbows? It almost seems unusual to see a photo of someone without a glitter beard or twinkly eyes these days! These filters are often obviously silly, but I wonder if there’s something slightly risky for our young people’s mental health when they also constantly have tools in their hands to drastically change their image, especially when most filters come with added skin ‘smoothing’ and contouring for the perfect cheekbones as part and parcel of what you ‘need’? It may all just be a ‘bit of fun’, but does it also have the potential to imply that who we are is not good enough, not entertaining enough, not attractive enough? Recently a young person was telling me that the camera on their smartphone comes with an inbuilt ‘beauty’ feature, giving the option to slim down their face on every photograph they take. It is easy to see how there’s a correlation between young people’s mental health and features like this, as young people are subliminally told that they are not good enough without digital alteration.

Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook stories continue the pressure to have the most interesting life as we are encouraged to constantly document our lives for others to review, and to do things that are more daring or interesting to keep their followers entertained. 

As Christians, we are called to be light in the darkness, and this is a great picture for how I believe we should engage online for and with our young people. It’s no longer appropriate to bury our heads in the sand and refuse to engage with young people online, but instead we should be present in an appropriate and well thought through manner. We know that our young people spend most of their time online, in fact the recent Generation Z research from YFC showed the sizeable difference between how many young people are regularly on social media (lots) versus attending a youth group (not many), and so, as youth and children’s workers, we must work out how we can be appropriately present and engaging in this arena too.

The RSPH suggested that social media platforms should contain tools that identify users with mental health issues and flag up heavy usage, which are welcome suggestions. I wonder however if we also need to embrace that, for the majority of young people, social media is here to stay, and therefore we need to equip young people with the skills to critically assess and evaluate the media they consume, and with the self-esteem and emotional resilience to implement theses skills. Do young people really understand that they are comparing their lives with an edited, often fictional portrayal of other’s lives, and how can we support them to appreciate the benefits of social media without it having a negative impact on their mental health?

At Golddigger Trust, we work hard to not just explore these issues with young people, but to model it too. It’s not always easy, but there can be a real impact in just regularly making a small impact - ‘liking’ those photos that young people post that aren’t digitally altered, encouraging young people to be present in activities rather than just recording them for the masses, and giving young people the space to critically examine what the positive and negative impacts of their social media use. This isn’t something we can solve, but through further understanding and by being present, we can encourage and support our young people to get the best out of social media and reduce the negative impacts that it can bring.