Perfection. The state or quality of being perfect. A state completely free of faults or defects. Perfection is popular; people are attracted to it; people are attracted to you. In 2016, perfection is everything. Or, rather, to young people of it is. Amongst young people, there’s a pressure to be perfect. To act in a perfect way. To look perfect. To have a perfect body. To get a perfect number of Instagram likes. To be in a perfect friendship group. And if you don’t meet these high standards, the self-loathing begins. The feeling of worthlessness sets in. On occasion, with fatal consequences.
In preparing for this debate, Mr Chairman, I spoke with one young person, Oliver, who explained how he felt about social media: “Young people are made to feel like they live an unfulfilled life, because theirs doesn’t live up to the seemingly perfect lives they see on social media”. And that is just it. With technology and social media sites making it so easy to edit and amend, or rather correct, photographs, it is easier than ever before to manipulate the truth. It allows us to present ourselves in our own filtered sense of reality, showing only what we want to show. This can result in people critically comparing their life with other peoples’, and using others’ posts as a measure of success or failure in their own life. This cannot be right. We must teach young people to aspire not to unattainable perfection, but to personal satisfaction. To love themselves for who they are.
For young people, today, pressure to succeed is all around them. So much so that in recent years, the NSPCC reports a 200% increase in the number of young people seeking counselling, over exam stress alone. However, for others, the coping method is more worrying. The Mental Health Foundation estimates that between 1 in 12 and 1 in 15 people self-harm, with some research suggesting that the UK has the highest rate of self-harm in Europe. And even if we are shocked by these figures, as many young people who self-harm will not harm themselves in a way that requires medical attention, these numbers only show part of the picture. And social media does not always help with this. A problem for one young person is the website Tumblr. Not knowing the details of how it works, they explained how it works: “Young people are able to type any mental illness into the search bar and there are ineffective controls to dissuade people from seeing […] harmful content. When I self-harmed, I would find Tumblr was my place to go to see material by other users that would encourage me to hurt myself.” What this illustrates is that social media does not only be the cause of mental health illness in young people, but it can perpetuate any existing problems.
Whilst it may be easy for us to say that young people can simply ‘log off’, what we understand less is that for young people, so much social interaction is done on social media websites, that if young people simply don’t log in, they can miss out and become isolated from others. Excluded from society. Detached from friends. The more isolated they become, the worse the depression that is likely in existence. To say to them do not log on is a simple answer to a complicated problem. We need to give young people practical advice, offer practical steps to dealing with social media and mental health. We need to have frank conversations, and breakdown the taboo of discussing mental health. Like young people are told using technology too much can cause repetitive strain injuries. Like young people are told to be exercise caution when speaking to people online. So, young people need to be told about the effects of social media on mental health.
Social media is a vital tool to young people today, and we must not seek to interfere with the good it does. Another young person I spoke to in preparation for this debate explained that they currently suffer from dysthymia (chronic depression). They acknowledge that, on occasion, social media does worsen their mental health, but when they are feeling low and cannot leave the house, they are not alone. Contacting friends is instantaneous, wherever they are. It is important in this debate not to forget the benefits of social media – it can do a lot of good!
In closing, Mr Chairman, I think there are many lessons for each Honourable and Right Honourable Member to take from this debate. Today, where young people are under more pressure than ever, and where anything less than perfection is worthless, we much ensure that our young people are happy being who they are. We must ensure that they are taught of the benefits and drawbacks of social media websites. We must ensure support is available for young people who are suffering from mental health conditions. And we must breakdown the barrier of discussing mental health issues. Young people must know that they are valued for who they are. No matter what their Facebook timeline, Twitter feed, Snapchat story, Instagram followers say. For being who you are, young people are perfect.