'Social media makes a nice bogeyman'

Dr Lucy Foulkes, honorary lecturer at UCL and Senior Research Fellow at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, is hosting a British Psychological Society webinar on social media, and whether it is actually bad for adolescent mental health.

How did you first become interested in this area? 

I’ve been researching adolescent mental health for many years now. There’s evidence that rates of mental health problems in this population are higher now than they were in the past, and I’m interested in why that might be. One common explanation is that adolescents use social media now, and they didn’t in the past. But when you look at the research, the relationship is more complicated than that. I’m keen to dispel the myth that social media is always harmful – so we can better focus on factors that might really be causing the problem.

What still needs to change in this area?

Lots of things! Despite an enormous amount of research interest in this area, a lot of the work done so far has been poor quality. For example, much of the early work was correlational – meaning that if you find a relationship between social media use and mental health problems, you don’t really know what’s causing what. This is starting to improve now, and the findings so far are pretty reassuring, but we still have a long way to go.

Could you tell us something that might surprise someone not familiar with this area of work?

Social media can be good for mental health too. For example, all the components of friendship that we see in ‘real life’ are replicated online: people have fun with each other, confide in each other, etc. And that’s all good for mental health. In fact, this notion of ‘real life’ compared to online life is a bit of a misnomer. Online is real life now, for adults as well as adolescents. And that’s not a bad thing! We need to stop being so scared of social media, I think.

What do you hope people will take away from the webinar?

A balanced understanding of the impact that social media has on mental health. There are definitely various problems with it, particularly for vulnerable adolescents, like those who are self-harming or being bullied. But that is true in the context of lots of benefits too. Social media can be both good and bad for mental health.

Can you tell us about any common misconceptions/myths in this area?

A common misconception is that the recent rise in adolescent mental health problems is because they use social media. It’s a neat explanation and social media makes a nice bogeyman, but the claim is just not backed up by the data. 

- Dr Lucy Foulkes’ webinar will take place between 2pm and 4pm on Wednesday 16 February. Find out more and book.

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