Young people are suing their governments in the state of Montana and in European countries, accusing them of not doing enough to protect the environment. They have effectively stepped up from a case of anxiety over the environment to embark on legal action.
It is perhaps one of the most spectacular results of youth concern over the environment and their assessment of progress on climate action.
Those concerns are driving increased eco-anxiety – a term used to describe the emotional distress caused by the shifting environment and the growing climate crisis. Social media often feeds it.
Young people typically use social media for self-expression, social connection and information sharing but there are problems with using these platforms too.
While social media can help raise awareness and activism, it also increasingly exposes young users to a barrage of alarming information and the risk of misinformation. That can intensify their feelings of helplessness, fear and despair over climate change.
This wave of negative news and imagery can create a sense of urgency that young people might struggle to process, leaving them anxious about the state of the planet and its future.
It begs the question: how to ease young people’s eco-anxiety while still using social media for environmental awareness?
Studies suggest young people tend to experience higher levels of eco-anxiety.
The global survey on climate anxiety among children and people aged 16 to 25 years from 10 countries, including Brazil, India, Nigeria, Philippines and Australia, revealed that they are extremely worried and feel sad, powerless, helpless and betrayed by their governments.
This survey also revealed that the adverse impacts on daily life from the climate crisis were greater for youth in the Global South.
While problem-focused coping has seen young people engaging more in climate action and activism, the unpleasant emotions – including frustration over governments’ lack of political will and action – is contributing to the rising eco-anxiety and poor mental health.
A study found that individuals experiencing eco-anxiety had higher rates of depression, anxiety, stress, lower self-reported mental health and functional impairment.
Eco-anxiety is compounding the pre-existing mental health issues of young people that are often neglected or overlooked.
The World Health Organisation reports that globally one in seven 10 to 19 year-olds live with a mental health condition, with suicide being the fourth-leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds.
In Indonesia, the National Adolescent Mental Health Survey found that around one in three people aged 10 to 17 showed symptoms of a mental disorder in the past year.
Eco-anxiety during adolescence can cause chronic distress that can affect a young person’s well-being into adulthood. It is crucial for them to receive timely and appropriate mental health support.
Eco-anxiety was found to have a significant correlation with the rate of exposure to information about the impacts of climate change, the amount of attention paid to climate change information and what is seen as acceptable by peers.
Social media plays a critical role in this exposure to information and can significantly influence cognitive biases that increase the tendency to trust and circulate information that fits with existing beliefs or political inclinations.
These biases are magnified in a digital landscape where biased social media algorithms often create echo chambers and filter bubbles. Those algorithms will reinforce existing viewpoints.
Social media giants like Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter) employ algorithms that tailor the users’ content based on online sponsorship, promotions, and predicted emotional reactions, regardless of whether these reactions are of joy, sympathy or anger.
This overexposure to unbalanced and biased information about climate change can deepen the effects of eco-anxiety and the general mental health on the young, especially those with pre-existing conditions.
This is particularly important for emerging economies like Indonesia — the world’s fourth-most populous country — that has a large youth population and is a nation grappling with substantial climate risks.
Indonesia is home to the world’s fourth-largest group of Facebook users and the fifth-largest group of X (previously known as Twitter) users.
While more evidence about the role of social media on eco-anxiety is needed, governments could also focus more on safeguarding the growing and vulnerable youth populations from the dark side of social media in the context of the climate crisis.
That would encourage young people to actively engage in climate action while mitigating the risk of social media-driven eco-anxiety.
Building media literacy education into schools and youth networks to increase awareness about climate change is also part of the solution.
Including young people’s voices and experiences is crucial in understanding the impacts of social media and eco-anxiety on their mental health and helping governments develop effective programs.
A 2022 study found that positive news stories about climate action can help young people’s mental and social well-being.
Governments could drive this by establishing youth advisory boards and collaborating with social media and news platforms to formulate appropriate climate change reporting guidelines.
This initiative will ensure that young people’s voices are considered in the decision-making process and that social media and news platforms actively contribute to strengthening youth action and well-being around climate change.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, visit https://findahelpline.com/i/iasp.
Additional reporting and contribution by Ida Bagus Nyoman Adi Palguna, a youth mental health advocate and health science student at University of the People. He is the founder and head of Indonesia-based youth mental health community, Dengarkanaku.org.
Dr Gabriela Fernando is an assistant professor at Monash University Indonesia. Her key areas of interest are in interdisciplinary concepts across global health equity, non-communicable diseases, and women’s health and gender equality, with a particular focus on the South and Southeast Asia region.