Social networks and mental health: supportive environment or a stalking ground for cyber-bullies?

Bullying crushes a child’s self esteem and confidence. It can leave a child feeling alone, totally helpless, and with no one to turn to. In their childhood innocence and naivety some even blame themselves for their torment. Many schools now have robust anti bullying policies in the form of bullying charters.

We live in an age where teachers acknowledge widely the emotional needs of children more than ever before. Resources such as SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) provide increased emotional support in many schools.

As a consequence bullying has now left many classrooms, but not all. This is commendable but, not only do schools’ attitudes and actions in response to bullying vary considerably, is it enough?

And now in the age social networking sites it has insidiously entered the sanctuary of children’s bedrooms. Running away from the school environment and threatening bullies now leads straight to the bedroom, a once safe haven where a child’s computer suddenly provides no way of escape. Computers are the contemporary child’s toy and some may say the innocence of youth has died as a result. This year’s forthcoming Anti-bullying Week, for example, has a special focus on cyber-bullying.

These issues have been on my mind since the death of 14-year-old Hannah Smith who suffered relentless bullying online. Her death was not a stark reminder of how vulnerable our children are not protected from bullies even in the supposed safety of their own homes. There has been intense speculation and much knee-jerking as a result of her death, but the bottom line is that social media played a part in her suicide. Whatever happened, she was a vulnerable child.

But social networking sites can be so liberating for many providing an outlet for those who lack self confidence in face to face interactions and who might have smaller social networks than usual. Many can make friends and form relationships online that they would otherwise struggle to in school.

These sites can be very helpful, especially for those who lack social contact, or may have poor social skills, agoraphobia etc, but the flip side of the coin is the bullying issue. Reaching an acceptable compromise regarding social networking will not be easy because the genie has now been let out of the box, so to speak.

When experiencing low moods, your reality becomes alien to that of everyone else. I have always advised people to seek help at the earliest opportunity to prevent depression reaching this critical stage. And this is where social sites that support mental health can help.

There is the social site launched by comedian Ruby Wax, for example, Black Dog Tribe, “a place in which like-minded people can find their own ‘tribe’ and share experiences in a supportive online community through forums, blogs, daily news and mental health information”. Another example is Kent and Medway NHS Trust, for example, which is piloting Buddy, an online system that records mood changes. And there are a raft of support-specific online forums linked to various charities and support groups which can make all the difference to vulnerable people.

This is the positive aspect of these sites.

Yet it is too simplistic an argument that social media and networks alone can help prevent depression. An holistic approach can include talking therapies, physical exercise and medication, if appropriate. These therapies can support each other – medication, as I know from personal experience and from my nursing career, has its down side. It can also make your mood fluctuate wildly, become disinhibited and even suicidal. Having easy access to online support can, at times like this, be vital. These issues are brought into sharp focus by the news today that the number of people needing treatment for mental health issues will have increased by more than 2 million by 2030.

We should look closely at both the negatives and positives about social media and networks in relation to mental health – and ignore them at our peril. While it is also wrong to assume that social media alone can push someone towards mental health problems, excessive use of social sites, as is often reported, can itself lead to problems.

Children sitting for hours in front of a screen removes them from the social contact of others that will improve their face to face communication skills and confidence in later life. Effective communication involves eye contact, body language, and gesturing. All ignored when lying in bed hitting a keyboard in silent and lonely surroundings.

Cyber bullies and unpoliced social media sites populated by children (or those posing as children) are not part of a civilised society. We must make it all stop. Now.

About Lol Butterfield

Lol, 51, is a qualified mental health nurse with a 30-year career in mental health services as a clinician. More recently, he has become involved with working towards eliminating the stigma and discrimination of mental health, which is his passion. Until recently Lol was an advisor for the ‘Time To Change’ national anti-stigma campaign covering the north east of England where he lives. His book, Sticks and Stones, is an autobiography detailing his childhood experience of stigma as a consequence of his father's mental ill health.
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