Shifting into stress: How climate fears are affecting young people

Our young people are getting a dose of environmental anxiety caused by social media. There are ways we can help them defeat it.

YOUNG people are suing their governments in the US state of Montana and European countries, accusing them of not doing enough to protect the environment. They have effectively progressed from a case of environmental concern to a legal one.

This is perhaps one of the most spectacular results of young people’s concern for the environment and their assessment of progress in climate action.

Those concerns are fueling heightened environmental anxiety, a term used to describe the emotional stress caused by a changing environment and the growing climate crisis. Social media often feeds this.

Young people commonly use social media for self-expression, social connection and information sharing, but they too face various challenges.

While social media can help raise awareness and activism, it also increasingly exposes young users to a hall of alarming information and the risk of misinformation. This can increase their feelings of helplessness, fear and despair about climate change.

This wave of negative news and images can create a sense of urgency that young people may have difficulty processing, leaving them concerned about the state of the planet and its future.

The question arises: how to alleviate the eco-anxiety of young people, while still using social media to raise environmental awareness?

Studies suggest that young people tend to experience higher levels of eco-anxiety.

A global survey of climate anxiety among children and 16- to 25-year-olds from 10 countries including Brazil, India, Nigeria, the Philippines and Australia found that they are extremely worried and feel sad, powerless, helpless and betrayed by their governments . .

This research also found that the negative impacts of the climate crisis on daily life are greater for young people in the Global South.

While confronting the issues focuses on young people becoming more engaged in climate action and activism, unpleasant emotions, including frustration at the lack of political will and government action, are contributing to growing environmental anxiety and poor mental health.

The study found that individuals who experience environmental anxiety have higher rates of depression, anxiety, stress, lower mental health and functional impairment.

Environmental anxiety exacerbates pre-existing mental health problems in young people that are often neglected or overlooked.

The World Health Organization reports that globally one in seven 10- to 19-year-olds lives with a mental health condition, and suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds.

In Indonesia, the National Adolescent Mental Health Survey found that about one in three people aged 10 to 17 showed symptoms of a mental disorder in the past year.

Environmental anxiety during adolescence can cause chronic stress that can affect young people’s well-being in adulthood. It is crucial for them to receive timely and appropriate mental health support.

Eco-anxiety was found to be significantly correlated with the rate of exposure to information about the impacts of climate change, the amount of attention paid to information about climate change, and what peers consider acceptable.

Social media plays a key 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 leanings.

These biases are magnified in the digital landscape where biased social media algorithms often create echo chambers and filter bubbles. Those algorithms will reinforce existing attitudes.

Social media giants like Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter) use algorithms that tailor user content based on online sponsorships, promotions, and predicted emotional reactions, whether those reactions are joy, sympathy, or anger.

This overexposure to unbalanced and biased information about climate change can deepen the effects of eco-anxiety and general mental health on young people, especially those with pre-existing conditions.

This is particularly important for emerging economies such as Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country with a large youth population and a nation grappling with significant climate risks.

Indonesia is home to the fourth largest group of Facebook users in the world and the fifth largest group of X users.

While more evidence is needed on the role of social media in eco-anxiety, governments could also focus more on protecting the growing and vulnerable youth population from the dark side of social media in the context of the climate crisis.

This would enable young people to actively engage in climate action, while mitigating the risk of social media-induced eco-anxiety.

Incorporating media literacy education into schools and youth networks to increase climate change awareness is also part of the solution.

Schools could actively engage in youth-led climate initiatives. There are also youth-led platforms that enable them to engage positively in climate action.

Including the voices and experiences of young people is critical to understanding the impact of social media and environmental anxiety on their mental health and helping governments develop effective programs.

A 2022 study found that positive news about climate action can help young people’s mental and social well-being.

Governments could drive this by establishing youth advisory boards and working with social media and news platforms to formulate appropriate guidelines for reporting on climate change.

This initiative will ensure that youth voices are taken into account in the decision-making process and that social media and news platforms actively contribute to strengthening youth activism and well-being related to climate change. 360info

Dr. Gabriela Fernando is an Assistant Professor at Monash University Indonesia. Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info.

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