The lives of most of us are inextricably intertwined with social media – but especially those of the young. They have never known a world without screens and scrolling, without almost everything being at their fingertips. We are all products of our interactions with the world and with other people, and if that interaction is healthy, we should be well. But if it becomes unhealthy, we can be damaged.

The charity Young Minds reports that in 2021 “one in six children aged five to 16 – that’s five children in every classroom – were identified as having a probable mental health problem, a huge increase from one in nine in 2017”.

While teenagers in particular are heavy users of social media, is it possible to make a direct connection between social media use and deteriorating mental health?

Research at the University of Bath has shown a strong link, in that those who gave up social media for just one week felt their wellbeing improved and symptoms of anxiety and depression lessened.

University of Cambridge research reinforces that finding: it shows habitual social media use is followed by a “drop in life satisfaction”, and that the latter is followed by increased social media use – implying a vicious cycle, a type of addiction (it has been suggested by US research that it’s easier to quit alcohol or nicotine than to stop scrolling through social media).

Adolescence – a potentially unsettling time – appears to coincide with heightened vulnerability to the downsides of social media. Words and (often enhanced) images that suggest others are happier or more attractive can create feelings of inadequacy. Isolation, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts can follow. And cyberbullying is widespread with 50% of 12- to 15-year-olds saying they have been victims.

Unsure of where to get help, young people with mental health issues often join online forums with fellow sufferers – or self-diagnose.

A major problem may be a lack of what experts call “media literacy”. They mean the ability to use social media critically and reflectively, to analyse and evaluate. That includes identifying sources of information, and questioning why something is being said or why someone is behaving in a certain way.

But children are not taught this kind of literacy. Legislation in 2003 gave Ofcom a duty to promote “media literacy” but left the term undefined; it appears to have ended up meaning knowing how to use the internet. And no similar requirement was made of any educational agency.

The next social media step, the much-heralded metaverse, is already here. offers virtual and augmented realities in which users’ avatars can interact with one another – and touch and feel via VR headsets and bodysuits.

Exciting or frightening? It sounds daunting for adults, and potentially seriously damaging for young minds. But VRChat claims its “community-created worlds” have helped users overcome social anxiety, create long-lasting friendships and learn how to express themselves.

VRChat seems more about experimentation, freedom and happiness than monetisation. But a Mr Zuckerberg has his sights on the metaverse and his priorities may be different…

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