Anxiety is a legitimate reaction to much of what the world is facing right now – from the Covid-19 crisis, to the climate emergency and the effects of social media. This piece is about the climate crisis, a capitalist social media culture and their effects on young people’s mental health. For more information about how to cope with stress related to Coronavirus, the NHS has published guidelines here.
Capitalism and social media
Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, and this number is increasing for adults and, worryingly, for children. Of these mental health problems, the most common is generalised anxiety disorder, both on its own and in conjunction with depression.
Why is this? Well there’s plenty of factors, but the ones we are focusing on are capitalism and climate change, two crises custom-built to make everyone everywhere anxious about everything.
Capitalism is the global economic system that has lifted millions out of poverty and created the grounds for boundless innovation and connection. But it is also a system that demands the merciless maximisation of profit. A system that reduces our bodies to the capital of corporations. A system that reinforces a cis-het white patriarchy that depends on constant reproduction and arbitrary hierarchy, and punishes those who fight against it. A system that, aided by neoliberalism, morphed into the infallible belief that self-interest and competition are the only ways to get ahead (after all, ‘There is no such thing as society’ right Maggie?).
Capitalism thrives on our insecurity, our fear of being out of work, our fear of not being able to compete, our fear of being outside of a traditional coupling, our fear of not being able to accumulate the ‘things’ that signal to the world, I am a success.
In the 20th Century, the cult of capitalism went global, and in the 21st Century its inherent problems are supercharged by technology – specifically social media.
At its best, social media is where we find inspiration, knowledge and community (yes, I was a 15 year-old queer kid who found solace in a tell-all Livejournal, which I hope to never, ever find).
At its worst, social media is where we stop treating ourselves as multifaceted human beings and start treating ourselves in the way agencies treat brands: enforcing a set tone of voice, a strict visual identity and, hell, a bespoke hashtag (originally out of scope but essential for the success of a campaign). And when we are in that place, acting as both marketeer and product pursuing social capital, anxiety becomes inevitable.
“Why am I not getting as many likes as I used to? Why is my picture of that must-have donut performing less well than their picture of that must-have donut? Why have fewer people wished me a happy birthday this year than last year? Why have I not been invited on that night out? Or that one?”
Then, when we’re in that anxiety spiral, capitalism twists the knife. We get served ads. Endless ads that are tailored exactly to us. Fed to us every three posts (on Instagram at least) as if to say, You’d be better if you had this shirt, this hat, these sneakers, this burrito blanket. Ads are now fed to us with such frequency that we think we don’t even notice them anymore, until we’re cuddling up under a burrito blanket on a Saturday night watching Euphoria and stress eating a stale must-have donut.
And if social media is bad for us (which in this case means a 30-something, middle class ‘snowflake’) then it’s even worse for young people. Social media, a drug more powerful than nicotine and alcohol, is used by 91% of 16- to 24-year-olds, the highest percentage of any age group. Research has found that young people who spend more than two hours a day on social media are more likely to report poor mental health, including anxiety. And young people are more likely to buy the astounding number of products peddled to them by influencers.
So, capitalism makes us anxious. Social media supercharges it. And young people are the most affected. Remember that for later.
Then, there’s the climate emergency.
The climate emergency
The world is on fire. We only have two business cycles to take meaningful action. Extreme weather is the biggest cause of people worldwide being forced out of their homes. Basically, it’s bad and most of us know it.
When we talk about the climate emergency and health, we often focus on the physical (the coverage about air pollution is a good example). But the collective psychological impact of what we’ve done (and continue to do) to our planet is so gargantuan that the International Psychoanalytical Association recognises climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century.”
Recently, the term ‘eco-anxiety’ has gained traction. As the result of our knowledge of climate breakdown, eco-anxiety can “cause sleepless nights, intense bouts of worry and, in severe instances, may also lead to drastic shifts in people’s behaviour”.
But of course the climate emergency is making us anxious. It’s a threat that is backed up by mountains of data, we read about it, we hear people talking about it and we also see governments and corporations doing very little to tackle it. It’s like we’re all that friend at the beginning of a horror movie begging their friends to NOT GO INTO THE SPOOKY HOUSE, only to be wilfully ignored – and promptly killed.
What’s worse, we all know that we are contributing to the problem through our addiction to capitalist consumption. So we either worry ourselves into a self-loathing stupor or disassociate to the point of denial, neither of which is good.
And that’s only at the concept of climate emergency.
“Exposure to natural disasters leads to an increase in anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, substance use disorders and suicidal ideation, as shown during the 1995 heatwave in the UK when suicide increased by 46.9%.”
If climate emergency is bad for us (yes, I still mean a 30-something, middle class snowflake) then it’s even worse for, you guessed it, young people.
There’s the pressure of being seen as ‘the future’ when the future looks like it will be an unsolvable apocalyptic shit-show of your parents’ and your parents’ parents’ making. And there’s the mental health consequences from weather-related disasters, which are likely to impact children (as well as pregnant and postpartum women, people with pre-existing mental illness, people who are economically disadvantaged, homeless people and first responders) the most.
“Today’s young people face twin crises - capitalism (made worse by social media) and climate breakdown. ”
If this all sounds very WILL NO ONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN then good, because we should.
So, what can we do?
Psychologist Robert Fancher wrote: “The basic norm of cognitive therapy is this: Except for how the patient thinks, everything is okay. Reality is not pathogenic. Just think straight and life can be good enough.”
But in the case of capitalism and climate-induced anxiety, we know that reality is pathogenic. When speaking to young people who are experiencing consumption and climate-related anxiety, we can validate and not minimise their concerns. We can be supportive, not dismissive.
And, through the safety of support, we can find the energy for change.
Psychologist Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams wrote: “The positive thing from our perspective as psychologists is that we soon realised the cure to climate anxiety is the same as the cure for climate change: action. It is about getting out and doing something that helps.”
The same approach should be applied to the anxiety that capitalism forces us to feel.
So we must do all we can to help young people to take action. By showing solidarity with youth movements. By supporting organisations that help young people make a difference. By recording every climate success so bad news isn’t all we see. And by remembering that hope isn’t just a fluffy naive daydream, but a powerful, unifying force that young people need to fix our broken system.
We're not buying it
In 2019, Do The Green Thing teamed up with Global Action Plan (GAP) – a charity that works with businesses and young people to tackle ‘throwaway culture’, consumerism and their effects on people and on our planet – on the #Idontbuyit campaign.
GAP asked more than 100 teens to spend a minute on Instagram and count the number of ads they say. On average, they were served up seven ads a minute – more than one every ten seconds.
We then worked with illustrators and young social media influencers to produce ‘Everything I was told to buy on Instagram’, a series of Instagram un-ads, exposing harmful hyper-consumption habits online and supporting young people to challenge the pressure to consume.