Mental Health Support
16 Oct 2023

How much is social media really to blame for the rise in mental health problems among young people? We spoke to two of our Pathfinder partners at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and West Sussex Mind to find out more.

Reports that social media is causing mental health problems in young people are a common feature of today’s news cycle. Recent headlines include: “A third of young people feel trapped on social media”, “Social media is driving teen mental health crisis” and “Social media's toxic content can harm teens”. There is no doubt that mental health problems among young people are on the rise, but is social media really to blame?

Even when social media isn’t the direct cause of mental health issues, it can still encourage problematic habits.

Studies have found that social media is at least partly responsible for a variety of mental health issues affecting young people, including anxiety, depression, self-harm, negative body image, suicide ideation and cyber-bullying. However, there seems to be little overall consensus, as other studies fail to find a significant link between social media use and long-term mental health.

Part of the problem may be the ever-changing nature of social media and the rapid rise of new platforms and behaviours. Due to ethical and legal considerations, research involving young people often lags behind modern trends, which leaves many studies feeling out of date by the time they are published.

To get a ground-level view, we asked mental health workers in the Pathfinder West Sussex alliance to share their experiences. Contrary to what the headlines suggest, social media doesn’t appear to be the predominant cause of mental health issues affecting young service users in West Sussex.

“Social media is not often cited as the reason for accessing mental health support,” says Diana, children and young people's social prescribing manager for West Sussex Mind. “And it’s not coming up a lot in sessions. The most common issues arise through school and other pupils, but if this spreads into social media, it could lead to low mood, poor self-esteem, social anxiety and school avoidance. In some extreme cases, it could lead to mental health issues with self-harm or suicide ideation thoughts.”

Maria, a mental health practitioner at the Sussex Partnership NHS Trust, makes a similar observation. “The use of social media is not that often raised by the young people I see,” she says. “That may in part be because it’s so prevalent and considered part of daily life for most people that they haven’t necessarily made the link between their social media use and their mental health difficulties. In the cases where the young person has discussed it as an issue, it seems to be one of the main contributors to their difficulties and certainly has a notable impact on their daily life.”

These comments suggest that while social media usage isn’t commonly reported as a problem in itself, there are certainly cases where it can have serious and negative consequences. And even when social media isn’t the direct cause of mental health issues, it can still encourage problematic habits.

“Spending excessive amounts of time online means there is less time for face-to-face interaction,” says Maria. “I have seen young people who struggle with social anxiety which could, in part, be due to how little time they spend with others in favour of social media use. There is also a pressure to live up to what they see on social media platforms which can leave young people feeling like they're not good enough if all they see is other people living a seemingly perfect life.”

“They can also be exposed to sometimes shocking and upsetting content. There have been known cases of young people encouraging each other to engage in self-harming acts, suicide and eating disorder behaviours. Often this type of content starts off disguised as help and support for individuals experiencing these issues, but can lead to upsetting and graphic content that could cause harm.”

For Diana, her experience has actually highlighted the positive sides of social media: “Many young people discuss the benefits in terms of feeling connected to others, building friendships, avoiding isolation and as a hobby/interest. Some feel it can be a healthy distraction from other issues they face or that it can make them feel more important and allows them to contribute. Many mental health support services use social media as a positive tool and find it a helpful way to communicate with young people.”

While the broader questions around the dangers of online content are yet to be adequately addressed by governments and tech companies, parents continue to play an important role in ensuring that social media use remains a positive experience for young people.

“Parents can have open and honest conversations with young people about social media,” says Maria. “Be curious as to how social media features in the young person’s life, and what they get out of it that is beneficial and helpful. Ask them about the apps and websites they use and talk to them about how to safely share information and discuss cyber-bullying. Parents can also lead by example and reduce their time on social media.”

There are a number of local services available for young people looking for support with their mental health:


Youth Emotional Service (YES)


If you are struggling with how you're feeling, you can find local sources of support on this website.