Social Media 'Magnifies' Mental Health Problems, RCGP Conference Told

Anna Sayburn

October 28, 2019

LIVERPOOL - Social media is amplifying an epidemic of perfectionism, competition, and parental pressure to increase pressures on the mental health of young people, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) annual conference in Liverpool heard.

Dr Dominique Thompson, GP and young people's health expert, said that in her former role as GP at the health centre of the University of Bristol, "9 out of 10" of her consultations related to a mental health problem. She added that this was higher than average as she specialised in mental health, but that the average figure for university GPs was 1 in 2 consultations.

"I wanted to look at why we are seeing so many mental health issues. Social media comes up, but there are other things too," she said.

Rise in Perfectionism

She said that, over the past 20 years, measures of perfectionism in young people have shown a "massive rise" worldwide, although it was unclear why this is. "We are seeing young people [who are]  never happy with what they do. What they do is never good enough. They compete at everything  - they don't feel they can just do their best; they have to be the best."

She pointed to the rise in graduates achieving first class degrees, now as high as 1 in 4. While grade inflation might play a part, she said, "young people come to university to get a first." She spoke of seeing students a few weeks into their first year, coming to see her because they were anxious that they were not on track to achieve a first class degree.

"Social media magnifies all of these pressures", she said, but it is "part of a bigger problem".

She stressed that social media can also be used to support people with mental health issues. She showed a photograph of a young woman with self-harming problems who had started painting images of flowers on her arms when she felt like cutting herself, and sharing the photos on her social media feed.

"It's creativity and a wonderful distraction", she said. "Not only that but it lets her friends know she's feeling low, because that's when she does this."

She suggested ways to help people disengage with social media when they needed to, such as removing the apps from their phones so they could only check feeds on a laptop, rather than on mobile devices. She suggested people should also check how they feel after a session using social media: "Do you feel better or is it just sapping the life force?"

She said GPs should be aware of the pressures they were under themselves when using social media, as well as the pressures it might be putting on patients' mental health, suggesting that people only follow "uplifting feeds" and "opt out of competition".

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