Too much, too young? Social media, moral panics and young people’s mental health

Redman, Peter (2021). Too much, too young? Social media, moral panics and young people’s mental health. In: Perriam, Jessamy and Carter, Simon eds. Understanding Digital Societies. London: Sage/The Open University, pp. 387–422.



In 2018 the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), in association with the Young Health Movement, published #StatusofMind: Social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing (RSPH, 2018). Although #StatusofMind drew attention to some of the positive benefits of social media it was mainly concerned with apparently worrying evidence suggesting they cause young people harm. For example, readers were told, ‘The evidence is clear that increased use of social media can be detrimental to some aspects of the health and wellbeing of young people’ (p. 24); that ‘[s]ocial media addiction is thought to affect around 5% of young people’ (p.6); that ‘young people who … spend[] more than two hours per day on social networking sites … are more likely to report poor mental health, including psychological distress (symptoms of anxiety and depression)’ (p.8); and that ‘[i]ncreasingly … young people are reporting that FoMO [fear of missing out from what’s happening on social media] is causing them distress in the form of anxiety and feelings of inadequacy’ (p. 12). Given that evidence it was small wonder the report’s Forward warned that social media pose risks that ‘if not addressed and countered … [will] open[] the door … to cause significant problems for young people’s mental health and wellbeing’ (p. 5).

The RSPH was not alone in raising the alarm about social media and digital screen-use. Although concern about their impact on mental health and wellbeing had been rising and falling for some time, the years 2017-19 saw an upsurge of anxiety in the UK and elsewhere. Inevitably, some of that concern could be found in inflated news stories with headlines such ‘Ban your toddler from TV and iPads’ (Allen, 2019). However, as #StatusofMind indicated, it was not only journalists who expressed worries about social media and digital screen-engagement. Researchers, psychiatrists, politicians, youth organisations, and others drew attention to their perceived harmful effects, often calling for them to be more tightly regulated. Such was the pressure for action, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in England called on the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) to ‘draw up guidance to help parents ensure children don’t use social media in a way that harms their mental health’ (Department of Health and Social Care, 2018). Equally, an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Media and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing was established at the Westminster parliament with the aim of ‘driv[ing] policy change that mitigates the bad and maximises the good of social media for young people’ (APPG, 2019, p. 6).

But how justified were those concerns and, if the level of anxiety exceeded the evidence available, what was causing it? It is precisely those questions the chapter will seek to answer. In the following pages, you will consider the relevant research literature and explore a sociological explanation (‘moral panic theory’) of how and why new media technologies frequently generate social anxiety. In light of those investigations you will also reflect on the questions: what does anxiety about social media and digital screen-use tell us about social harm?; what does it tell us about the relationship between individuals and society?; and, how do the social and technical shape each other?

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