Young people sadder, lonelier since social media onset

Jacob Shteyman |

Links are being drawn between social media use and poor mental health among young Australians.
Links are being drawn between social media use and poor mental health among young Australians.

Youth mental health levels used to be relatively stable until something changed about a decade ago.

After 2012, as some of the most popular global social media platforms were taking off, young Australians began reporting a sharp drop in mental well-being, research shows.

Between 2011 and 2022, young women and girls aged 15 to 24 reported their mental health scores dropped from 73 per cent to 62 per cent after remaining largely unchanged for the 11 years prior.

A wall with silhouetted artwork
Social media has been linked to cyberbullying, body image issues and social isolation. (Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

Young men also experienced a decline in their mental health, down from 74.5 per cent to 67.5 per cent.

The revelations came from analysis released on Thursday by unaligned economic think tank e61 Institute of the Household, Income, Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, which tracks the lives of more than 17,000 Australians each year.

The data adds weight to links that have been drawn between social media use and poor mental health.

“While more data and research are needed to say that social media is causing declining mental health among young Australians, the coincident timing of the decline suggests there is a link,” e61 research director Gianni La Cava said.

“We find that young women born since the late 1990s (Generation Z) – who use social media more than any other group – have strikingly lower mental health than older women and all men.”

Instagram and Snapchat are two of the platforms named in the report.

The latter offers mental health awareness and support resources to its users.

“We value our culture of diversity and inclusion and want you to feel supported and heard,” its website reads.

Instagram also promotes ways to “stay safe”.

Mobile phone
Social media platform Snapchat offers mental health awareness and support resources to its users. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

The decline in mental health corresponded with a fall in friendships and a rise in loneliness metrics.

Adults older than 25, who typically use social media less than younger Australians, experienced a less-pronounced fall in mental health of about three per cent.

Social media platforms have been blamed for exacerbating cyberbullying, body image issues and social isolation, triggering proposals from state and federal governments to restrict their use among children.

There are also concerns social networks are being used to lure vulnerable youths into adopting extremist ideologies.

On Tuesday, a 14-year-old boy allegedly stabbed a student at the University of Sydney after reportedly previously undergoing a deradicalisation program.

“What we’re seeing is social media is playing an increasing role in the radicalisation of young people and indeed in the commissioning of crimes,” Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil told Channel Seven’s Sunrise program on Wednesday in response to the incident.

The research by e61 forms part of their submission to a parliamentary inquiry into social media and Australian society, which was called in May to consider Meta’s decision to drop news deals, harmful and illegal content on social networks, their impact on mental health, and the use of age-assurance technology.

The inquiry is expected to deliver its recommendations in November.

Lifeline 13 11 14

beyondblue 1300 22 4636

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (for people aged 5 to 25)