Anybody who is on Facebook, Twitter or other social media knows how easy it is to be drawn into situations which can seriously raise the stress levels. It might be an online argument about something in the news, a simple difference of opinion on a social situation, or a full-blown exchange of insults, sometimes between genuine, real-world friends.
It can also be something more simple: observing the seemingly wonderful lives of your peers, as painted on social media, and wondering why yours is not quite so wonderful.
This is particularly true for young people, emerging into adulthood, and coupled with the normal stresses which accompany that growing period, it’s contributing to what many regard as an “anxiety epidemic” amongst young people.
“Is there anybody allowed have a bad day on Facebook?… I’m not always in good form, but on Facebook you have to present this normal image. Kids are being bombarded with what they believe is a cultural norm. And if they are not reaching up to this, then there is obviously something wrong.”
On Today with Sean O’Rourke, on RTÉ Radio 1, regular mental health experts, Dr Harry Barry GP and psychotherapist, Enda Murphy, shed some light on the scale of the problem, particularly in the age group 13 to 17. “That’s the stage at which our whole brain is being changed, our body is being changed, we are adjusting to so much change in life”, he says. “But I think when we throw in the whole technology world….”
I’m sure many people reading this who were brought up in an age before social media remember their own stresses and anxieties from that adolescent and post-adolescent period. But nonetheless, Harry Barry was in no doubt that technology has paid a huge part in elevating the stresses to levels he now classes as an “anxiety epidemic”.
Enda Murphy picked up, saying that part of the problem was the instantaneous nature of the messaging on social media, and the fact that it is a continuous stream, not allowing young people to adjust to normal, everyday life situations.
“The smartphone has been a game changer…. The smart phone has allowed instant access to huge amounts of information on the one hand but, more seriously, is introducing young people from a young age to the whole concept of rating themselves.”
The anxiety that results from all of this can manifest itself both physically and psychologically, from panic attacks to self-harm. Asked to describe the nature of a panic attack, Harry Barry offered the following: “Imagine you are sitting at home looking at TV, feeling fine, nothing bothering you. Suddenly, you find your heart pounding, you are shaking, you are sweating, your stomach is in knots, your muscles are tense, your mouth is dry, you have this overwhelming sense of dread that something awful is going to happen.”
Panic attacks like this can lead to a loss of control, as people become “anxious about being anxious”. It can also lead down a more dangerous path, the path to self-harm.
How widespread is this problem?
“There is a European wide study of self-harm which was done in the last five years. It showed that 9.1% of our Irish school going children are self harming. And 50% of those are repeatedly self harming.”
Back on the subject of social media, smart-phones, and the pressure they exert, one texter to the show made a very simple suggestion, which both Harry and Enda agreed with. Namely, that parents should give traditional, simple “non-smart” phones to younger children, for use in emergencies, rather than social media-enabled smart phones which can lead to many of the above problems.
But, as Harry pointed out, although great in theory, that’s easier said than done, with the pressure young people are under to match their peers.