Excessive use of social media creating generation of ‘broken people’, psychiatrist says

Use of social networks increasingly contributing to mental health problems, particularly among young people, conference hears

Excessive use of social media is creating a generation of “broken people”, according to a prominent consultant psychiatrist.

Prof Matthew Sadlier said there had been five-fold increase in cases of self-harm seen at the Mater Hospital in Dublin over the past three decades, with use of social media increasingly contributing to a range of mental health problems, particularly among young people.

The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) conference in Killarney passed motions on Saturday calling on the Department of Education to ban smartphone use in primary schools from the start of the next school year and the Department of Health to develop a detailed programme aimed at combating social media addiction and harm.

A third motion called on the Attorney General to explore the potential for taking a legal action against Facebook’s parent company Meta, similar to one in the US where the company has been accused of knowingly inducing children and teenagers into addictive social media use.


Prof Sadlier, who proposed all of the measures, said action was urgently needed because “what we are seeing is just an absolute crisis”.

“We are seeing an increase in self harm and the problem is that it is not mental illness, it is mental health problems. It is distress,” he said. “It is people presenting not with actual illnesses per se that are actually manageable within the construct of psychiatry or therapy. We’ve got people coming to us with problems that we can’t really solve.”

The problem, he said, is not limited to children, with research among trainees GPs, whose average age was 31, suggesting a large number spent more than two hours a day on social media. Most of those trainees said this had a negative impact on their mood and sleep patterns.

In addition to measures aimed at better regulating the social media platforms themselves, Prof Sadlier said young people needed to be offered alternative types of recreation so they could connect with each other in a more healthy way.

“How many children are sitting at home in their bedroom engaging with a smartphone because they have nothing else to do?” he asked. “I read this week that there is no football pitch in Dublin 8. Children need alternatives to social media.”

He said he believed a number of child abuse scandals had deterred parents from bringing children to some more traditional activities but this had contributed to the current lack of options. “Each measure taken will turn the dial down a little bit,” he said.

Clare Daly, a solicitor working in the area of data protection and a board member of Cyber Safe Kids, told the conference that social media platforms should be made to take far swifter action to remove posts that were potentially harmful to children.

“It can be two weeks before an offending post is taken down which is incredibly long for a child who is in distress because material is circulating in a class or peer group,” she said.

Prof Sadlier said he was amazed posts that unsafe were allowed to go online in the first place.

“We wouldn’t let Coca-Cola market seven new drinks then withdraw three because they had poisoned people,” he said.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times