Childhood is supposed to be the happiest time of your life. Though growing up is no walk in the park for anyone, you'd think those relatively carefree days — before real life kicks in — would be fairly untroubled by the stress and social conformity of adulthood, right? Well, perhaps not. Two independent new studies have shown just how the demands of modern society can mean anxiety and depression for young people.
The two studies, each conducted by British psychologists, will be presented today to the British Psychological Society (BPS) conference in Manchester. Although unrelated, between them the two papers offer a telling insight into the way the influence of technology and the media overlap with traditional social relationships and affect young people during a vital period of their development.
The first, from the University of Glasgow, looks at the way teenagers perceive the need to be available to their friends and immediately responsive 24 hours a day on social media. This, researchers say, can cause depression, anxiety and reduce sleep quality. The second — a study from the University of Sussex — shows how young people who wish to fit in, look good and own the "right things" end up making themselves feel more miserable and socially deficient.
The first study was conducted by Dr. Heather Cleland Woods and Holly Scott of the University of Glasgow. The team provided questionnaires for 467 teenagers regarding their use of social media, gathering figures on overall use as well as that specifically occurring at nighttime. A further set of tests measured sleep quality, self-esteem, anxiety, depression and emotional investment in social media. They discovered that participants generally experienced anxiety over not responding immediately to texts or posts and that emotional investment in social media use is related to poorer sleep, lower self-esteem as well as higher anxiety and increased depression levels.
As Dr. Cleland Woods explains: "Adolescence can be a period of increased vulnerability for the onset of depression and anxiety, and poor sleep quality may contribute to this. It is important that we understand how social media use relates to these. Evidence is increasingly supporting a link between social media use and wellbeing, particularly during adolescence, but the causes of this are unclear." The stress of being "on call," Cleland Woods suggests, is compounded when subjects themselves opt out of sleep. "While overall social media use impacts on sleep quality," she says, "those who log on at night appear to be particularly affected. This may be mostly true of individuals who are highly emotionally invested. This means we have to think about how our kids use social media, in relation to time for switching off."
The second study, led by Dr. Matthew Easterbrook of the University of Sussex, looked at the pressure to be cool, look good and own the "right stuff." Every child experiences some form of peer pressure — it is, after all what living in human societies and maintaining communication and order is all about. Here though, the researchers say, it is detrimental to many children and teenagers because while many young people buy into consumer culture believing it will make them feel better about themselves and help them to make friends, often the reverse happens. The result is a negative "downward spiral" in which those with low well-being turn to consumerist values, impacting further still upon their state of mind.
The three year study looked at 1000 children aged between 8 and 14 and found that being disruptive, having "cool stuff" and looking good was often seen as the best way to become more popular. The results, however, show that peer relations actually worsened over time for those turning to such values. The study also shows some important differences between the ways boys and girls ware affected. Depressive symptoms in boys seem to increase in their desire for material goods whereas the same emotions in girls tend to lead them to the "internalization of appearance concerns." In other words, unnecessary pressure to conform makes boys crave approval through gadgets while girls seek it through looks.
"Although friendly and helpful children were ultimately more popular over time, young people mistakenly predicted that the route to being liked was in having a reputation for disruptive behaviour, having 'cool' stuff and looking good," says Professor Robin Banerjee co-author of the Sussex study. "What we found was another example of a downward spiral — those rejected by peers then turned to consumer culture, which actually worsened, rather than improved, those relationships." Easterbrook agrees: "Consumer culture may be perceived as a coping mechanism by vulnerable children, but it is one that is detrimental to their well-being."
The young people in the Sussex study seek peer acceptance through the conformity of choice. They feel the need to be always on the ball with regard to what's cool and what's not. Owning the latest gadget, wearing the coolest clothes and looking the way the fashion dictates becomes a constant and unending battle for acceptance. This sounds a lot like the "high emotional investment" Cleland Woods describes in her late night Facebookers. Feeling left out is no fun for any kid and that has, without doubt, always been the case. But with a 24-hour consumer culture, the stakes are ever higher. Social success is always going to be important to the majority of children; you might argue it is an inevitable part of a cultural awakening — but if that desire for inclusion only results mental and physical harm, it might just be time to help our children gain the confidence to rearrange their priorities.