General News Research — 15 February 2016

PARENTAL fears about the dangers of young people spending a lot of time on social media are justified, new research shows.

Social media can damage young people’s mental health and wellbeing, a major report based on hundreds of international studies has found.

Those with low self-esteem are particularly at risk, say experts from Macquarie University and Sydney’s Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

Lead researcher Deborah Richards says parents should be on the lookout for “increased risk-taking behaviours, cyber bullying, depression, exclusion of minority groups and reduced self-image and self-esteem”.

Teenage girls with body image issues are particularly at risk, she says. One study of 1000 children aged 9-16 has found even confident social media users are at risk of harm.

Cyber bullying is another major issue for many young people spending long hours on social networking sites.


“The effects of cyber bullying can be profound, including depression, anxiety, isolation and in some cases suicide,” Richards says. “For some, the appeal of cyber bullying comes from the anonymity of the attack, as people are able to communicate things that they would not say face to face.”

The deaths of 13 young people through suicide as a result of online abuse led the Human Rights Commission to call Australia the worst place in the world for cyber bullying in 2013. Studies also found links between social media use and risk-taking such as substance abuse, sexual behaviour and violence.

Richards says the impact of social media will vary according to the individual.

 “Those with lower self-esteem may access social media more frequently and use it in a different way to someone with a higher level of self-esteem,” she says. “Facebook enhanced feelings of connectedness for well-adjusted people, but those prone to depression were likely to feel more disconnected.”

One study actually found students’ self-esteem was highest when they were updating their Facebook profiles, particularly because of the “ability to selectively self-present by choosing their best photo or personal information”, Richards says. But other studies have linked Facebook use to narcissism, loneliness and body image concerns.

However, the findings, reported in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, are not all bad news. Researchers say there are benefits for young people from using social media, such as being free to communicate with their peers.

In addition, some children benefit from the anonymity; they can be the same as everyone else. Others say online social networks can help introverts learn to socialise and be empathetic.

There’s no doubt there are pressing issues for many parents. Australian Communication and Media Authority data shows two-thirds of 12 to 13-year-olds access social media on a computer, and 92 per cent of 16-17 year-olds.

But young people using mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets is increasing.

Balwyn speech pathologist Marita Fraser is all too aware of the risks associated with social media sites. She’s keen to ensure her daughters, Lucy, 11, Abby, 9, and Emma, 7, stay off social media as long as possible.

“The worry is that children don’t have the skills to manage things if something bad is said, or they might be the ones saying something bad,” Fraser says.

“There is a lot of pressure on parents, with kids saying all their friends have it, but as far as I am concerned, the risks outweigh the benefits.”

This article first appeared on ‘Herald Sun’ on 12 February 2016.


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