Three out of four children as young as 12 dislike their bodies and are embarrassed by the way they look, increasing to eight in 10 young people aged 18 to 21.
The findings come from a major new study warning that social media represents a significant risk to the current and future health of today’s young generations.
Nearly half of all children and young people aged from 12 to 21 questioned said they have become withdrawn, started exercising excessively, stopped socialising completely or self-harmed because they are regularly bullied or trolled online about their physical appearance.
Four in 10 said they are in mental health distress, with almost one in five experiencing body image issues and 14% experiencing eating difficulties, such as extreme restrictive eating, binge eating and purging or vomiting. Of those in need of support, just one in ten young people were receiving treatment.
The findings come from a new survey of 1,024 children and young people aged 12 to 21 years old by stem4, the youth mental health charity. Based on the findings, the charity says that urgent action is needed.
“We need to improve understanding of the potentially compelling impact of social media content, and the reinforcement created through algorithms, on young people’s engagement with apps and their consequent mental health,” said Dr Nihara Krause, consultant clinical psychologist, CEO and founder of stem4.
A graph depicting responses triggered by negative comments about appearance among young people aged 12-21
The findings come at a time of acute public concern about the impact of social media on young people’s mental health, triggered most recently by the death of Molly Russell, TikTok’s showing of “pro-anorexia” and other harmful material to those aged under 18 and a plethora of other research showing that the mental health of an entire generation of children and young people is in crisis.
“The findings of this survey are deeply worrying,” said Krause, who has created a range of NHS-approved, evidence-based apps, including Worth Warrior, to help young people with body image and eating difficulties.
“When young people use social media apps to look for much-needed information and advice, they find themselves presented with a supposed reality that is distorted and harmful,” she said. “Their searches online then keep generating triggering content, which compounds the problem.”
The survey found that 97% of children as young as 12 are now on social media. Despite almost 70% saying that social media makes them feel stressed, anxious and depressed – with two-thirds saying they were worried by the amount of time they spend on social media – the average daily time spent on apps was 3.65 hours.
Those questioned admitted they continued to access apps despite concerns that their mental health was being damaged by the online content pushed at them by social media algorithms: a statistic rising from 54% of 12-14-year-olds to 60% of 15-17-year-olds and 71% of 18-21-year-olds.
Despite that, 95% of those questioned said they felt helpless when it came to quitting their online habit. They also admitted that they are four times more likely to turn to social media apps than to talk to friends and family when seeking to overcome negative feelings or low self-worth about their bodies.
A graph depicting mental health issues affecting young people aged 12 to 21
One young person said: “Social media is definitely negatively affecting me. As young people, we constantly compare ourselves to good-looking people online. On sites like TikTok, the only people you see are gorgeous due to the algorithms and that makes us feel really bad about ourselves.”
Another commented: “Social media has a huge impact on how we see ourselves. I feel pressured to look like something that has been edited and altered. If social media didn’t exist, I wouldn’t compare myself or be compared: I’d just get on with life.”
Since the pandemic, demand for NHS child and adolescent eating disorder services increased by two-thirds, with 10,000 young people starting treatment between April and December 2021. Yet levels of provision are such that treatment is only available to those in the most serious need.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) carried out research recently that showed that TikTok’s “recommendation algorithm” pushes self-harm and eating disorder content to teenagers within minutes of them expressing interest in the topics.
At the time a spokesperson for TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance and has more than one billion users worldwide, said the CCDH study did not reflect the experience or viewing habits of real-life users of the app.
“We regularly consult with health experts, remove violations of our policies and provide access to supportive resources for anyone in need,” they said.
“We’re mindful that triggering content is unique to each individual and remain focused on fostering a safe and comfortable space for everyone, including people who choose to share their recovery journeys or educate others on these important topics.”
TikTok’s guidelines ban content that promotes behaviour that could lead to suicide and self-harm, as well as material that promotes unhealthy eating behaviours or habits.
Imran Ahmed, CCDH’s CEO – who has worked with Ian Russell, father of Molly, and the Molly Rose Foundation to launch a parent’s guide to TikTok – welcomed the new findings.
“Social media companies’ platforms exacerbate what young teens and adults feel regarding body image, eating disorders and mental health,” he said. “TikTok is designed to dazzle young users into giving up their time and attention but without meaningful guardrails, their algorithm can turn deadly incredibly quickly.”
Ged Flynn, the chief executive of Papyrus, the charity dedicated to the promotion of positive mental health among young people, also welcomed the survey. He said that social media is one of the issues placing “unprecedented pressure” on today’s young people “that culminate in some giving up hope”.