Mental health of young Aussie women dropped 11 per cent – are Instagram & Snapchat to blame?

Dan Barrett
Dan Barrett

Young women born since the late 1990s have lower mental health than older woman and all men. The cause attributed to the 11 per cent decline reported between 2011 and 2022 is the introduction of social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.

This is the finding of a report by Australia’s e61 Institute. Using data collected in the annual Household, Income, Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, e61 researchers Rose Khattar and Gianni La Cava found that the average self-reported mental health score of females aged 15-24 declined from 73 per cent to 62 per cent between 2011 and 2022. Young men in that same age range declined just seven per cent – from 74.5 per cent down to 67.5 per cent.

“Our research finds that youth mental health was stable but then began falling sharply after 2012 which coincides with the time when photo and video-sharing social media platforms became widely popular,” Gianni La Cava says.  

“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.

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“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.

“This fits existing data showing they experience higher rates of mental health disorders, greater need for help from mental health professionals and increasing rates of mental health-related hospitalisations.”

Young people are more connected, but feel more alone

It seems obvious to point this out, but friendships create warmth, happiness, and joy in our lives. Friendships enrich our lives and help us find meaning and stability in the world.

The Mayo Clinic, a non-profit academic medical centre based out of the US, states that friends can:

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  • Increase your sense of belonging and purpose
  • Boost your happiness and reduce your stress
  • Improve your self-confidence and self-worth
  • Help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one
  • Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise

An important metric considered by professionals understanding our levels of mental well-being is what is known as ‘The Friendship Index’. The index measures how much respondents agree or disagree with the statement: ‘I seem to have a lot of friends’.

The e61 researchers noted the correlation between a decline in The Friendship Index and the introduction of youth-centric social apps like Snapchat and Instagram into the lives of Gen Z.

From 2011-2022, The Friendship Index score for young women dropped from 0.97 to 0.12. Young men also saw a decline from 1.08 to 0.45. Declines were also recorded for those over the age of 25 but were not as dramatic.

By recognising the decline in The Friendship Index, researchers aren’t diminishing the existence and value of online friendships, but it does recognise that the introduction of social media apps into young people’s lives is having a detrimental impact on their friendship relationships and the nourishment of those experiences.

“We find that lower mental health is highly correlated with self-reported feelings of social isolation as measured through friendship connections,” says Dr La Cava. 

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Dan Barrett is the Head of Content at EducationDaily's publisher. He is a Brisbane-based writer/producer/comms professional who has worked for organisations including SBS, Mediaweek, National Seniors Australia, iSentia, the NSW Dept of Customer Service, and Radio National. He is passionate about the Oxford comma and is one of Australia's earliest podcasters.