Teenagers in Malta are experiencing what one mental health worker has dubbed “instant loneliness” amid mounting pressure brought about by social media.
Several girls, especially in their early teens, are feeling anxious if their photos or comments on social media fail to elicit a response from friends straight away.
This emotion then starts to build as the hours go by and breeds into full-blown loneliness.
“Young girls will describe how they are stuck in a mental loop whereby they reach out to friends online and, if they don’t get an answer, they will spiral and start to think that people don’t like them anymore,” says Kurt Abela, project coordinator at SOS Malta.
“We’ve seen a shift in the way teens experience isolation in the past couple of years.”
The NGO SOS Malta manages a service called Kellimni.com, which offers round-the-clock support through e-mail, online chat and a smart messaging service. Mr Abela says he can note a difference in the way the young generation has grown up speaking to each other digitally, rather than face-to-face or over the phone.
Mental health professionals also visit schools and youth groups and have spoken to hundreds of teenagers in January through their workshops.
“It’s definitely one of the most intense months for us and an area where we’re seeing a change in what is being discussed,” Mr Abela says.
The service caters for teens talking about peer pressure, with things changing as technology becomes an even bigger part of our lives.
Now teens talk about cyber bullying and a general anxiety around social media, especially when it comes to reaching certain standards about the way they look and when it comes to the number of people they feel need to give them feedback.
In the past, teens could get respite at home from the pressures of school, but now, with mobile phones, it is always present, Mr Abela says.
Study shows that 43.4 per cent of Maltese people experience some form of loneliness
And this can be seen in a changing demographic, with the majority of people using the service aged between 12 and 25.
CEO Claudia Taylor East says there has also been a shift in the number of men now using Kellimni.com.
“We’re finding that our type of service is more appealing to boys and men who struggle to talk about their feelings in person.
"While two-thirds of our service is still used by girls, that is slowly changing,” she says.
A study carried out by the Faculty of Social Well-being at the University of Malta last year found that 43.4 per cent of Maltese people experience some form of loneliness. Researchers interviewed more than 1,000 men and women aged between 11 and 55+ with almost half admitting to experiencing ‘moderate’ to ‘severe’ levels of loneliness at some point in their lives.
Ms Taylor East says the number of people who contacted Kellimni.com in December rose significantly compared to the same period in 2018. The organisation had held a marketing campaign to promote their services, but the CEO says the stress of Christmas also played a huge part in the growth.
“Fifty per cent more contacted us via our smartphone app last month, while we saw a 22 per cent increase in one-to-one live chats than the previous year,” she adds.
“Half of these people contacted us in the days just before Christmas and it continued right through until the New Year. Around 70 per cent of people were dealing with everything from a break-up to sexual abuse, as well as gender-based violence.”
She says January is also proving to be a very busy time for her staff of 20 full-time professionals and 10 volunteers.
“In one week alone, we were contacted by more than 200 people who said they were lonely,” she continues. And she and her team say the influx of non-Maltese to the island has also led the organisation to adapt over the past seven years.
“As well as offering people the option of speaking to someone in English and Maltese, we have professionals who can speak Serbian, Italian and French,” she adds.
If you are feeling lonely, anxious or depressed, you can contact Kellimni.com through its website.