Social media and mental health—two aspects of our everyday life with a great deal of mutual influence on one another. Our access to the world around us, to ourselves, and to our interpretation of life as a whole are all greatly shaped by social media, as is the status of our mental health. How does social media affect our well-being, and what are some of the results? Read on to find out.
The introduction of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, has changed the very nature of communication. This is true on a number of levels:
Social media certainly has its benefits, and in terms of ease of access to one another and a virtually endless amount of information, it has become a constant staple in our lives. Yet it also begs the question: what are its ramifications on our lives beyond the platforms it provides? This is where the effects of social media on our mental health come in.
Research has shown that social media can activate a neurotransmitter called dopamine, the “feel-good chemical” that is secreted by the brain during pleasurable activities such as eating, sex, and social interactions. While this may provide users with (often instant) gratification, this also means that social media is essentially built to induce a sort of addictive response in its users.
In addition to its innate addictiveness, research has discovered that social media aggravates mental health disorders, particularly when it comes to anxiety and depression, with time spent on social media among the predictive risk factors for both types of mental health issues.
Specifically, studies have found a 70% increase in reporting of depressive symptoms among social media users. Symptoms of depression were also found to be significantly higher among individuals who spent most of their time on social media, particularly when focusing on “image profile management” on media platforms. Gender also seems to affect how much we use social media, with women found to become more addicted to social media than men.
The type of social media activity one tends to engage with has also been linked to mental health issues. Passive activity (such as reading other people’s posts) has been found to be more strongly connected to symptoms of depression than actively posting messages of one’s own.
Anxiety or depression may be the two central issues concerning the world of mental health, but research has also focused on the effects of social media on other, adverse mental health experiences.
Somewhat ironically, social media exposure has been shown to increase the severity of one’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Viewing the profiles of others, and even communicating with people through social media, can sometimes grow to replace in-person interactions, cultivating instead an inclination to remain home and by themselves, rather than face the outside world and its many potential threats, as well as triggering content.
Social media has also been shown to increase one’s sense of inadequacy and low self-esteem, in large part due to an increased need for external validation that relies on positive reactions from commenters and followers to measure one’s own self-worth. Social media also encourages greater self-absorption and can thereby make it harder for more devoted users to gain a more balanced and stable life perspective. Fear of missing out (or FOMO), has also been tied to social media-related validation, as exposure to other people’s curated image of their lives, via personal profiles, can cause those following them to believe they are missing out on the most significant or exciting aspects of life.
Finally, social media has been shown to hinder impulse control, while possibly increasing the chance of suicidal thoughts and activity. Criticism by oneself and others, feeling “less than” due to unfavorable comparisons, and the sometimes-overwhelming outpour of concerning or triggering information can all contribute to social media-derived suicidality. Even more poignant, and despite regulatory crackdown measures, certain social media forums may offer “how-to” suggestions for suicide completion, making the actual attempt at suicide that much more accessible.
For all of their above-mentioned potential threats, social media also offers a form of support that is integral to its infrastructure: its own sense of community. So many more meetings between individuals, who have gone through similar experiences and can understand where you are coming from, have been made possible by the existence of social media. Validating one’s opinions and even existence, engaging in respectful discourse and broadening one’s horizons are all part of the supportive potential of social media communication, and can serve their users in an effort to build up their well-being. Such aspects, in addition to moderation, balance, and the ability to consider different and challenging new perspectives, can help social media be a source of positive reciprocity, now and moving forward.