Dr Clare Bailey: Is social media making your teen depressed?

It’s a tough time to be a teenager. Figures show that in 2017, nearly 13 per cent of five- to 19-year-olds had at least one mental disorder. Even more disturbing are the numbers of children self-harming, with hospital admissions doubling over the past six years. These alarming statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. New research shows that depression in 14-year-olds has risen from nine to 15 per cent over ten years. This is often kept hidden, even from parents.

It’s normal for teenagers to spend more time in their rooms, communicate less and change their mood in the time it takes them to cross a room. So how can you tell if this is more than just ‘being a teen’?

social media depression
Maite Franchi/Folio Art

I discussed this with Professor Stephen Scott, a child psychiatrist from London’s Institute of Psychiatry. He pointed to some early signs of depression and/or anxiety to look out for in a teenager, including: taking less pleasure in things, smiling less, becoming withdrawn, occasionally tearful, being self-critical, feeling helpless and being more snappy. A drop in grades can also highlight issues, as might having difficulties sleeping or eating considerably more and/or restricting food. He told me about one of his patients, Allanah (not her real name), aged 16, a typical teenager. At her school parents’ evening it emerged that she had been looking tired and falling asleep in lessons, and not doing homework. This was surprising as she supposedly spent hours in her room doing schoolwork each evening.

Her mother asked if anything was wrong. Allanah confessed she was worried about her GCSEs. The more anxious she got about her work, the more time she spent on social media.

She also felt unattractive and would post curated photos of herself. If she didn’t get 20 likes within half an hour, her mood dropped, leaving her more miserable and spending more time trying to get positive comments, often posting late at night – a vicious cycle of constant worry. 

After seeking help with Professor Scott, Allanah’s mum was told to discuss the issues calmly and in a matter-of-fact way, keeping her own feelings in check and avoiding giving too much advice. A good way to communicate is during a neutral activity, such as driving, with an open question along the lines of, ‘How are things?’ Understanding how Allanah was feeling enabled her mother to support her and reveal that she, too, had gone through a low period after Allanah was born. Allanah was reassured to hear low moods are common and usually pass. She agreed to do her homework downstairs for the next month, where her social media use could be monitored; also, the house wifi would be turned off at 11pm.

Within a few weeks Allanah’s mood improved. She is now spending less time on her phone and is feeling less anxious. Schoolwork is being completed on time and her grades have risen.

If you have concerns visit a GP, who may refer you to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, or see a school counsellor.

For more information visit youngminds.org.uk

What your nails say about you

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I am often asked whether white patches on the nails matter. These patches commonly occur in healthy people – they grow out in a few months and require no medical investigation. Despite this, they have a very clinical sounding name – leukonychia.

Usually, they are a result of a minor nail injury, particularly if it’s near the growing plate at the base of the nail. The patches often don’t show until weeks later, by which time you have forgotten about it.

Sometimes it is a reaction to damage to the nail itself, particularly from chemicals such as nail polish removers or gels for stick-on nails. If people have persistent and recurrent patches on nails for many months it may indicate a deficiency of zinc or calcium.

If you have a question you would like answered, email drclarebailey@you.co.uk