CONTACT US Wed Nov. 13, 2013

CASS 中国社会科学网(中文) Français


Internet, rapid societal change may harm mental health of youth

Author  :  YU GUOLIANG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-04-05

Excessive use of and even addiction to the internet and mobile phones threatens young people’s psychological health. Photo: FILE

The mental health of young adults has drawn a lot of attention from Chinese society and the international community. A cross-temporal meta-analysis has been conducted on the psychological health of junior high school students in China from 1987 to 2013. The results show that the level of mental health of junior high school students declined with each school year, with junior high school freshmen changing the most. The results also show transparent gender differences, with female students exhibiting greater changes and lower levels of mental health.

Research on senior high school students (including secondary vocational school students) from 1990 to 2012 indicates that the level of mental health of senior high school students in China experienced a slow decline from 1990 to 2004, though it remained relatively stable from 2005 to 2012. In this group, the level of mental health of girls was lower than that of boys, and it also declined faster.

In 2012, Xin Ziqiang, a professor from the School of Sociology and Psychology at the Central University of Finance and Economics, conducted research with his team on the mental health of college students in China from 1986 to 2010. The study revealed that the overall level of college students’ mental health gradually increased over the duration, while this improvement trend was higher for boys than for girls. The situation for graduate students during this period was basically similar to that of undergraduates.

From the studies, it seems that the mental health of students in high school and universities did not deteriorate over time. This conclusion seems to be inconsistent with our perception of students today. That’s because the most recent systematic research on the mental health level of high school students does not go past 2012, while that of college students goes no further than 2010. How the levels of mental health of young people has changed since 2010 is still unknown, but judging from the trend, there are indeed mental health risks or “early signs of deterioration” that deserve our attention.


The development of contemporary young people and their mental wellbeing can be said to be synchronous with the development and rise of the internet. The internet has become a central feature of their lifestyles, which is a cultural feature and historical background unique to this generation. Yet the use of online social media does not improve individual mental health. Instead, excessive use of and even addiction to the internet and mobile phones threatens young people’s psychological health.

It is obvious that as they become increasingly reliant on social media, young people are willing to spend more time performing online “screen” activities. This means less time will be spent on real “off-screen” life, such as face-to-face social interaction, paper media and sports. This is negatively correlated to depressive symptoms and emotional disturbance. The use of social media and electronic products can affect mental health both directly and indirectly. Factors such as internet harassment, poor sleep quality and low self-esteem are mediating variables that influence young adults’ mental health when spending too much time on social media.

Addiction to the internet and mobile phones is a huge hidden danger to psychological health. It has been found that, compared with mild electronic product users, severe electronic product users are more likely to experience a lower level of happiness and a higher risk of suicide. The environment, including family, school and peers, can have an effect on internet addiction. As a result of dissatisfaction in this environment, young adults are likely to seek compensation in the virtual world.

The mass of information on the internet provides many opportunities for young people to compare between themselves socially, which in turn has a negative impact on their psychological state. Students who frequently use social media expose themselves to too much peer information. Such information as what triggers the belief that others “are living a better life” can affect self-esteem and self-evaluation. In addition, some negative information on the internet can also harm their mental state.

Social transformation

Modern social transformations may also be an important factor affecting the mental health of youth. This is first manifested in the influence of economic development on young people’s psychology. When people are in poverty, an increase in the level of economic development can raise their sense of happiness, but when the level of economic development reaches a “turning point,” the relationship between happiness and economic development will become complicated. A rapid phase of economic development generally increases materialism among youth, which then causes too much attention to be paid to the importance of material wealth. This process will exacerbate conflicts with traditional norms and ethics, thereby strengthening negative emotional experiences and reducing happiness and life satisfaction.

Social pluralism also plays a role in the mental health of youth. Young people now have more and more choices for their lifestyle, and they need to learn to make good choices. The process of choosing tends to generate a series of emotional disturbances and psychological conflicts. Meanwhile, the high heterogeneity of contemporary society can affect young people’s sense of belonging and identity. Under this heterogeneity, young people may have a social identity belonging to multiple groups at the same time. Different social groups mean different social norms. When differences occur between these social norms, young adults will experience inner conflict regarding social identity.

The process of social transformation could bring more environmental uncertainty. From a psychological perspective, uncertainty brings anxiety. With the acceleration of modernization and social transformation, Chinese society is becoming more individualized, and the risks previously assumed by collectives are gradually borne more by individuals. In the network society, information becomes the direct objective of production, which makes uncertainty an essential characteristic of the network society. The pressure to climb up the social ladder and the uncertainty of their environments has fueled class anxiety among young people. Additionally, many popular views such as “winning from the starting line of childhood” have negatively affected their mental health even more.

Internet culture and social transformation affects the mental health of young adults not in a linear or an independent manner, but in an overlapping fashion. Social transformation is a deep cause of the decline of youths’ mental health, while changes in cultural trends are the result of direct media. The process of social transformation affects the mental health of young people through the role of cultural trends.

Social transformation is historically inevitable and irreversible, but a series of ensuing social problems can be alleviated or even avoided. Social contradictions and psychological conflicts that accompany social transformation are the underlying causes of changes in young people’s mental health. As such, while preventing and reducing the negative impact of the internet on mental health, countermeasures in response to different types of social transformation should also be formulated.

Notably, almost all research at home and abroad indicates that among young people, the mental health level of girls is generally more negatively affected than that of boys, and this gap is gradually increasing with time. This means girls are more sensitive to cultural trends and social changes than boys. Therefore, more attention should be paid to their mental health. At the social level, it is necessary to further advocate for a social atmosphere of respecting women and maintaining their equal status. At the school and family level, we should pay more attention to the daily lives and psychological states of girls, and we should help resolve both of their real and psychological troubles in a timely manner so as to improve girls’ mental health.


Yu Guoliang is a professor and director of the Institute of Psychology at Renmin University of China.


(Edited and translated by YANG LANLAN)

Editor: Yu Hui

>> View All

Interview with Zhang Yuyan on globalization and development

Zhang Yuyan is director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (C...

>> View All