STRESSED youngsters could be driven to self-harm and even suicide if they let social media drag their self-esteem to desperate lows.

That is the stark warning from an Oxfordshire charity, which has set up a taskforce especially to teach teenagers about the stress and anxiety that social media can fuel.

The Abingdon Bridge has set up the Social Media Anxiety Resilience Team (SMART) to go into schools, colleges and youth groups and advise youngsters about the pitfalls of platforms such as Instagram and Facebook.

The charity’s chair of trustees Chris Bryan, a former head at St Birinus School in Didcot, said: “If young people begin to lose their self-esteem it can have a massive impact on their future.

“They underperform at school, become more isolated and, in some cases, it can lead to self-harm and potential suicide. We have had a few young people who have come very close to this.”

Between 2014 and 2016, 156 deaths were registered as suicides in Oxfordshire, in line with the England average.

Of these 23 were people aged 25 or younger, resulting in a 'suicides per 100,000 people' rate of 5.7 - above the national average of 4.7.

The dark side of social media was exposed recently after the suicide of Molly Russell, 14, who had viewed Instagram content about suicide and depression.

On Thursday the picture-sharing network announced a ban on graphic self-harm images, following calls to better protect young people.

Gary Hibbins, service manager at The Abingdon Bridge, said: “It’s clear that so many young people attribute their self-worth based on how others engage with them online.

“Young people are losing touch with reality and creating false selves.

“[Some] live in constant comparison with others - we compare our ‘behind the scenes’ with everybody else’s highlight reel.

“There is so much instant gratification online and young people are not aware or educated to keep themselves safe.”

The Abingdon Bridge carried out a pilot of its SMART programme last year, during which 75 per cent of participants said social media had a negative impact on their wellbeing.

Mr Hibbins said: “We have clearly hit on a growing need - if anything, the problem is bigger than we anticipated.

“Young people report that they are less social than ever before and many young people are spending up to eight hours a day on their phones or tablets.

“We are seeing young people who often have a low self-esteem and feel they cannot cope with the pressures in their lives.

“Some feel under pressure to excel at school and worry about the consequences of failing. Others may be victims of cyberbullying, which can make them become very reclusive so they suffer from acute loneliness.”

Mr Hibbins stressed there are also ‘many positive aspects’ of social media, however, adding: “The key point is there needs to be more education to ensure young people have the resilience to make informed life choices.

“We always encourage a balance. It’s important young people connect with positive relationships and other engaging activities.”

Chair of trustees Mr Bryan credited county councillors in the area for funding the project through their local priority funds, a pot of cash each county councillor can donate to a local cause.

The Abingdon Bridge was founded in the town 25 years ago, offering support and counselling for youngsters struggling with antisocial behaviour, drugs, alcohol issues and mental health problems.

It said it has ‘never been as busy as it is now’.