Social media, poverty and lack of exercise drive mental health crisis

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Heavy use of social media, growing up in poverty, a lack of physical exercise and being bullied are all factors in the Generation Z mental health and wellbeing crisis – with problems being particularly acute for girls.

And problems – which existed pre-pandemic – have been exacerbated during Covid-19, with an estimated one in six young people now having a probable mental illness.

The mental health challenges facing Generation Z – those born around the year 2000 – have been laid bare in a wide-ranging report from the Prince’s Trust and the think-tank Education Policy Institute (Crenna-Jennings, 2021).

The study is based on data from the Millennium Cohort Study and examines the personal experiences of young people in England at age 11, 14 and 17. It also includes focus group responses from November 2020.

The resulting report issues an especially stark warning for girls. While the wellbeing and self-esteem of all young people drops as they move into secondary school and continues to fall as they grow older, girls see a far greater decline than boys, it finds.

Overall, the report reminds us that one in six young people now have a probable mental health issue. This was confirmed by NHS research last year – this has risen from one in nine in 2017.

This latest research reveals a sudden decline in wellbeing and self-esteem for girls by age 14 – with social media playing a key role. A third of girls are unhappy with their personal appearance by age 14, compared to one in seven at age 11.

Depressive symptoms, meanwhile, rise among both boys and girls between the ages of 14 and 17, but increase more markedly for girls. Girls’ wellbeing falls even lower during the end of their teenage years, too.

The report highlights a number of factors that affect young people’s self-esteem and wellbeing, not least family income and heavy social media use.

On social media, the report states: “Daily social media use is associated with worse scores on all outcomes in girls age 14, but only worse wellbeing for boys at age 14.

“We find a significant relationship between heavy social media use at age 14 and worse self-esteem and higher psychological distress at age 17.”

The report identifies a clear role for the new relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) curriculum in helping to equip young people to cope with and understand social media use: “As social media has become a fully integrated part of young people’s lives, we must ensure that young people are equipped with the tools to engage with it in ways that do not adversely affect their mental health,” it states.

In the focus groups, young people said there were negative and positive aspects to social media use and acknowledged the importance of controlling how they use it. Comments included:

  • Beauty standards and what other people think, and (what) other people look like, can make you think that’s how you’re meant to look.
  • Comments on social media can be vile – people are vile to each other. It’s the same in school – people do make comments on people’s bodies.
  • On social media it’s easy to sort of like build a life – like a fake life and make it seem like everything’s perfect.
  • There’s people in our year that I compare myself to.
  • Rumours on social media can lead to bullying.

Another key finding is that young people from low-income families are more likely to have lower levels of wellbeing and self-esteem, and more depressive symptoms. The pandemic has exacerbated existing social inequalities, adding to this pressure.

Other factors include being bullied in childhood, which has strong and enduring effects” on both boys’ and girls’ mental and emotional health into their teenage years. This is particularly the case for wellbeing: the more often a child was bullied in childhood, the higher their risk of low wellbeing by age 14.

The study finds that frequent physical exercise plays a positive role in young people’s wellbeing and self-esteem and in limiting depressive symptoms, especially for boys at age 14. At age 17, frequency of exercise had a positive impact on both boys and girls.

The report adds: “Physical activity appears to be more important for boys’ mental and emotional health in early adolescence, with a graded relationship between frequency of exercise and scores on all three outcomes (wellbeing, psychological distress, self-esteem) at age 14; at age 17, we see a graded relationship in both girls and boys.”

However, participation in activities and sports have fallen due to school closures and lockdown, “likely adversely affecting mental health and wellbeing”, the report warns.

While urging schools to use the RSHE curriculum to address some of these issues, the report also asks government to consider the “urgent introduction” of a £650m funding package specifically to support young people’s wellbeing. This funding could be used by schools to hire additional staff to deliver mental health support, run interventions, improve links with CAMHS, and to train teachers.

The report’s author, Whitney Crenna-Jennings, a senior researcher at EPI, said: “Poverty, heavy use of social media and lack of physical exercise are just some of the factors that we find are directly linked to poor mental health outcomes.

“Young people already face significant challenges at this stage in their lives, but this generation have also had to deal with a pandemic that will have starved them of the vital relationships and experiences needed to support their journey through adolescence.

“The government has provided extra academic support for pupils but there is now a compelling case for it to consider emergency funding to support young people’s mental health and wellbeing. If we fail to counter the ill-effects of this crisis on young people’s health and development, there is a real risk that it inflicts irreversible damage on their later life chances.”


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