Aisha Gordon-Hiles is an online counsellor and supports children and young people across the country. She also offers support via a personal social media accounts and regularly finds herself reporting inappropriate content. Many children and young people are presenting with issues related to social media, not knowing who or what to trust online with often very sensitive issues.

I’ve been an online counsellor for a long time and have come into contact with young people experiencing a myriad of issues, from eating disorders and self-harm, to anxiety and exploitation. Their use of social media is an interesting dichotomy: it can be extremely damaging while also offering a lifeline for those wanting to connect with people going through similar experiences. Knowing the difference is often beyond young people.

Social media challenges

I see a huge issue for young people in knowing where to go online. They are very often looking for advice, looking for friends or support and are overwhelmed by what’s out there. Without a much life experience under their belt, there is no way of knowing who’s offering the right kind of advice, or the right kind of friendship.

I see young people on social media who have a lot of followers and who position themselves as ‘coach’, ‘therapist’ or ‘self-love expert’. They might do some fantastic work, but in not being qualified, equally they could be doing untold damage. They’re not protected and nor are those who they are trying to support.

The fact that young people use social media to find people and communities they can relate to is a good and a bad thing. It is relatively easy to locate and chat to someone who has been through the same or similar experiences, but this ‘connection’ doesn’t mean that person can guide you in the right way.

There’s a specific account I’ve seen where a young woman with a lot of followers – who purports to be someone offering emotional and mental health support – regularly states that she’s open to receiving direct messages. However, every week she is posting extremely graphic and concerning pictures of her own self-harm. I worry for her and I worry for her followers who may be being influenced by her actions. Both sides are vulnerable.

Young people don’t generally have perspective or experience to see that the person who looks like they’re helping is in fact pulling them down. A young woman I supported recently said that it took her a long time to realise that the social media anorexia group she belonged to was perpetuating her condition, not helping her to recover.

My worry is that although I report these sorts of accounts, there is no online signposting for young people which could enable them to use social media positively and effectively.

There is a fine line between allowing someone to express themselves and seeing how that negatively influences vulnerable young people.

Often, I communicate with young people who have had frightening experiences online. One young person messaged me after a friend posted a message about killing herself and her family. I saw her account and could see that she had made similar comments previously and seemed to be venting. I could see she had a lot of support, including help from mental health professionals. I explained this to the young person contacting me. After a while it became apparent that she and the girl threatening such drastic action had never met. In fact, she knew very little about her.

Parents’ understanding

I hear a lot of frustration about parents and how they respond to young people talking about their wellbeing and mental health. Many wish their parents were more informed.

Comments I hear are that parents don’t accept their child has mental health issues. That they don’t care. Some parents have called it attention seeking. One parent had told their child that because depression is genetic, it was impossible that they could have it. A lot are angry or frustrated that their parents don’t listen.

Of course, not all comments are negative. And there is nothing new in teenagers railing against their parents. But it also shows how many young people are becoming a great deal more aware and informed about mental health than their elders.

Social media positives

While I believe there needs to be more guidance for young people, showing them who is qualified to offer mental health support and who isn’t, I see a huge number of positive aspects to social media.

For young people, the idea of a safe space online is tremendously powerful and gives them the opportunity to experiment and enjoy the benefits the digital world can bring, with none of the risks. The Kooth online forums can be especially supportive – and because they’re moderated, the environment is risk-free.

Indeed, one of the followers of my personal social media account recently told me she receives more support and understanding from her friends on social media than anyone in her ‘face to face life’.

How young people can get the best from social media

There are lots of ways people can get better at managing their life online, particularly with social media. I sometimes ask a young person to open up one of their social media accounts and look at the first five posts they see.

I ask them how these posts make them feel. Happy? Envious? Sad? Being mindful around what you’re taking from social media feeds is important. They’re all determined by who you follow. If you struggle with self-esteem and you are following someone you admire, someone you would like to emulate physically, perhaps, what are you getting from their posts? How are they influencing your wellbeing?

If you’re looking at your phone first thing in the morning and last thing at night, how is that affecting you emotionally? What are you reinforcing?

Reclaiming some control is key. I often remind young people that they can choose their friends, choose the content they see. They can choose their ‘online family’. They can go online and post whatever they want to, whether they’re being 100% authentic or not, recognising the power they have and being mindful about how they use it. The adage ‘knowledge is power’ is true offline, but is especially appropriate for young people and their parents in navigating the online world.”

Aisha Gordon-Hiles

Online Kooth Counsellor