The Influence of Social Media on Mental Health
Research suggests that social media has the potential to be a detriment to mental health, especially for adolescents and young adults
It is widely acknowledged that social media has heralded a profound change in the way people communicate and interact online, notably over the last decade. Social media has encouraged a more prompt and greater efficiency of communication between users, with an increase of time spent on a variety of platforms.
There is a lack of clarity, however, as to whether this change has affected numerous aspects of human behaviour and ultimately contributes to psychological disorders.
Given the relatively new relationship between social media and mental health, researchers are attempting to develop a greater understanding for this contemporary phenomenon.
Historical internet-based studies have used a reductionist model, in relation to time spent online and reduced time spent offline, affecting interpersonal relationships, which ultimately impacts upon mental health.
With the advent of social media, online activity is considerably more “sociable”, and consequently the reductionist model has become less popular. There is broad discourse that assesses the impact of social media on mental health, weighing both the positive and negative aspects of social media on our mindset. This is conducive to finding how online technologies can be used to help in prevention, awareness and treatment of mental health illnesses.
Some studies have concluded that people who spend a lot of time on social networking sites, (such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), are more susceptible to symptoms of depression, social anxiety, low self esteem, and internet addiction. This is more likely to affect young children and adolescents, who are at a point in their life when learning and socialising behaviours are at a vital developmental stage.
In 2013, a study found that the relationship between Facebook use and subjective well-being in young adults was detrimental, and the more they used the platform, the more their life satisfaction declined.
The research was based on text messaging the participants five times per day for 2 weeks, to evaluate their mood, feeling of loneliness, social interactions, and social Facebook use. This approach was combined with the application of questionnaires, such as the Beck Depression Inventory, Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale and Social Provision Scale.
The results indicated that users’ subjective perception of well-being and life satisfaction may be undermined and any psychological decline may lead to an increase in signs and symptoms of depression.
One of the primary reasons why time spent on social media may be associated with depressive symptoms, is the fact that computer-mediated communication can lead to an impaired and wrongful impression of the physical and personality traits of other users. Immediately this could lead to inappropriate conclusions, regarding physical appearance, educational level, intelligence, and moral integrity.
Furthermore, a more recent study, led by social psychiatrist Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan, found that using Facebook may even make us miserable.
“On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection”, asserts Kross.
“But rather than enhance well-being, we found that Facebook use predicts the opposite result – it undermines it”, he added.
Today, Una Foye, a research officer for Mental Health Foundation, is conducting research and evaluating mental health in a wider context, with a focus on preventative understanding.
She believes there are no hard and fast rules about social media usage and, when we talk about social networks and mental health, everyone is so different, that we can not actually say: “You don’t have to do that with social media and you’ll be ok. If only it were that easy.”
Foye also states there are two sides of the same coin in the relationship between social media and mental health. Younger people, who use social media a lot, are more likely to be affected by the negative facet, as they check their accounts roughly every ten minutes and are more exposed to online bullying.
“Firstly, we can see social media as a place where we compare ourselves. So if you have low self-esteem, if you are perfectionist or vulnerable to depression and anxiety, it may feed into that negative voice that says you don’t have that many friends, you don’t look that good etc.
It can be a reminder of how good other peoples’ lives are, because we mostly put the good stuff up there.
This is something that body image work is starting to look into, and it could be a helpful insight into eating disorders and low self-esteem in the new generations”, she said.
“But on the other side, social media can connect us. Think of family and friends who have moved away and you’re still keeping in contact with them.”
“I moved away from home, but I still feel connected with friends that I haven’t seen in months. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have also been helpful in my career and probably the older generations, who don’t have social media, may be missing out on this and are more vulnerable to isolation”, Foye considered.
Paul Best, of Queen’s University Belfast, has researched and examined online friendships as a key link between social media and mental health.
He believes a major issue for young people is a lack of training on how to appropriately use technology, which leads to various mistakes early on.
As there is an evident blur between online and offline relationships, he encourages users to make this distinction as soon as possible, when deciding who you want to share information with online.
He said: “These friendships help to inflate one’s sense of belongingness, social status and perceived social support, which in turn increases mental well-being.
However, the problem is that this is all based on perception. For instance, the extent to which you can ‘cash in’ on this type of social capital is debatable.
This is a big issue among teenagers in particular, who invest so much time in developing their social networks”.
“It also gives us an insight into how devastating cyber-bullying can be. Imagine all of your friends turned against you in the most public of ways, or perhaps they didn’t come to your defense, and you suddenly realised that your sense of social support belongingness and social status was an illusion”, he added.
Taking into account the consequences of potential symptoms of depression and anxiety, he considers depression a significant risk factor for suicide and self-harm, because a big problem with any sort of mental health condition is the fear of social stigma, particularly for men.
“This often stops people from seeking help, and things often continue to get worse. The common statistic that’s often used is that 1 in 4 of us will experience depression at some stage in our lives.
I heard on the radio last week, of a recent NUS survey of university students, that stated 78% reported experiencing some sort of mental health problem in the past. What’s more worrying is that 50% said they never spoke to anyone about it, or sought professional help”, Paul said.
“In this instance I think online technologies, with their various anonymity and confidentiality benefits, can actually be used to help people with mental health problems”, he added.
Finally, when taking into consideration the potential for social media’s use in aiding and developing communication skills, Best strongly believes that time will tell, as he stated:
“As human beings, I think we are all social creatures and have very primitive needs to belong and build networks and communities, which I suppose is part of our success as a species. I don’t see this changing anytime soon and anything that makes this easier will always be popular.”
Thanks to Una Foyes and Paul Best for sharing their opinions and results from their research. Although the influence of social media on mental health is a complex and often difficult topic to address, here is their advice for a safe and responsible use of digital technologies:
- Keep a critical hat on when looking at others’ ‘perfect lives’, and turn off your phone during quality time with family and friend
- Use social media to connect with people you know, but don’t forget to call or meet people face to face.
- Whatever your personal and academic perspective, be aware that social media is a significant part of most of our lives, therefore we need to know how it affects us and how we can use it properly, without it being a detriment to our mental well-being.
- Appraise or scrutinise the quality of information you receive online, particularly for mental health. Check out the ‘about me’ sections of sites. When was it last updated? Is the site moderated?Do they provide links to reputable offline services, etc.?
- Remember that search engines are not designed to interpret the social meaning behind searches – you must be specific and clear regarding the information you want to find; when seeking help online, most people don’t verify information from multiple sources or search past page one on Google.