Teenagers turn to social media rather than adults for mental health support, research finds

Young people with mental health problems are not receiving the support they need, the study found

24th April 2023 about a 4 minute read
"Without providing them with the resources they need, we could have a generation growing up with crippling mental health problems.” Ross O’Brien, managing director, Wysa

Teenagers would rather turn to TikTok in times of mental health crisis than speak to a teacher, new research has found.

The research, carried out by Wysa, an artificial intelligence-based mental health service, found that eight in 10 teenagers claim to suffer mental health symptoms, with one in three experiencing symptoms severe enough to need professional support. One in five reported sleep problems.

Although more than half of the teenagers with anxiety and depression had not accessed support, a third said they had looked for answers on TikTok, while 21% said they had sought help from a teacher.

The research was carried out by an independent firm in January this year, and involved a survey of 1,406 young people aged 13-17.

When asked about their mental health, half said they were suffering from anxiety (49%), half from stress (48%) and nearly a third (30%) reported feelings of low self worth. Girls were more likely to report mental health worries: more than twice as many girls as boys said they had a strong dislike of their body or appearance (36% to 14%), and they were also much more likely to report anxiety or stress (59% to 35%).

Too embarrassed to ask for help

Of those surveyed, only a quarter said they would speak to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) for help. The main reason for not seeking help, the survey found,  was embarrassment (43%) or that, despite their symptoms, they didn’t think they needed help (41%). One in six simply didn’t know who to ask for help.

Wysa found that 78% of teens said they would prefer to speak to an app rather than their teachers. Sixty percent said they would rather consult an app than a doctor.

Part of the reason for the difficulty in accessing support, Wysa said, was to do with timing: 49% experience mental health worries before school, and a quarter (27%) just before bed – yet most current solutions are available during school hours. A third (35%) said that the support available is not at the right times for them. Emma Taylor, CAMHS lead at Wysa, said: “Resources mean that young people who present for clinical support have limited and time-bound treatment at specific times of the day – which may not be when they most need help. An always-on, flexible solution, that helps them at the moment of need is necessary.”

When asked how they would feel about a confidential app with tailored support, young people largely preferred the app to teachers, doctors and siblings. Eight in 10 (78%) would choose an app over their teachers, and three-fifths (60%) would rather get help from an app than their doctor.

Wysa’s managing director, Ross O’Brien, said the research findings were “troubling”. He went on: “Not only is the scale of mental health challenges potentially higher than we realised, but the avenues of support aren’t reaching people in the way that they need them to. Our young people are anxious, worried about the future, stressed about school work and exams, struggling with body image and relationships – all in the context of the tumult of the pandemic, war in Ukraine and cost of living crisis, which they are absorbing.”

O’Brien said that the way mental health support is currently offered “doesn’t quite work” for young people, who spend much of their time online. “There needs to be new tools and resources,” he said. “Round the clock opportunities to speak in a way that is free from embarrassment and without judgement. Support that meets our young people at the time of need, in a way that they want. Without providing them with the resources they need, we could have a generation growing up with crippling mental health problems.”

FCC Insight

We know from NHS figures that levels of mental ill-health among young people are higher than ever before. Even so, the figures from the Wysa research, which show that eight in 10 teenagers are displaying symptoms of mental illness, are startling. Many, however, find it difficult to ask for help, and turn instead to unregulated social media sites for support. The challenge is to find ways of offering support to teenagers that suits their digital lifestyles. Our own research shows that digital tools can offer effective support for those unable, or reluctant, to access professional help, and our digital mental health tools guide is able to help users evaluate which tool might work best for them.