Social media plays a significant part in young people’s social lives today, but ask any teen what they’d do without it and most become anxious and upset – they consider their tech connections a lifeline. Unfortunately, that very anxiety is itself an indicator that something is wrong with how teens and adults use social media today.
In fact, according to experts, social media use may be contributing to anxiety and depression. One survey by Bauer Media found that 16% of British adults believe social media is negatively impacting their mental health.
Half The Story
One of the primary reasons psychologists are concerned about social media’s impact on mental health is that most people only share the positive parts of their lives on sites like Facebook and Instagram. Seeing only the best of others’ experiences can make young people feel inadequate or unaccomplished. A more authentic approach to social sharing, though, could change how users see each other.
One young person who felt the harm of such limited narratives is Larissa May, a young woman who began the #HalfTheStory movement during her college years. May’s project began as a small on-campus undertaking but has since spread around the globe, and the project makes authenticity a priority. According to May, the project gave her a chance to share the hard things in her life, such as depression and anxiety and meant that “I no longer had to live up to a standard of perfection. And I started connecting with people on a much deeper level.
Another reason that social media increases depression and anxiety is that users’ constant access to these sites and apps often damages interpersonal relationships and is reshaping the ways people interact with each other. For example, social media often makes people hyper-vigilant about their relationships, and they may inadvertently sabotage their relationships via the websites by spying on partners and making assumptions about social interactions.
For young people, the risks of personal sabotage are even greater. Most have poor impulse control and underdeveloped judgment, so a selfie that might be interpreted as a sign of narcissism by adults (excessive selfie posting and narcissism are correlated), may be viewed by younger users as showing off for another potential partner, or may cause peers to feel a sense of shame or embarrassment about their own bodies and attractiveness.
No More Facebook?
Because of the effects of social media on mental health, some people are considering deleting Facebook – there’s even a dedicated hashtag, #DeleteFacebook. Many question whether this will have a meaningful effect on mental health, however. Science suggests it can have a real impact, though. One study measured users’ cortisol levels, a common stress hormone, during normal social media use and then after five days away from Facebook use. After time away from the site, scientists saw a reduction in cortisol levels, suggesting regular Facebook use could be more stressful than beneficial.
Of course, not all people use Facebook in the same way. As such, some stated that stepping away from Facebook caused them to feel isolated and out of touch with friends and family. Additionally, many disabled individuals have responded to the #DeleteFacebook message by describing the important role Facebook plays in their lives. For many disabled people, Facebook is a primary mode of communication and socialization, and deleting their accounts isn’t an option. Mental health activists need to take such factors into account when advising people on social media use.
Certainly, social media can cause some strain – creating anxiety about missing social events, competition, jealousy, and a feeling of inadequacy – but to combat such concerns, users and experts will need to take a multifaceted approach. Complete abstinence from the platforms may be unrealistic in today’s digital environment, but current use levels are also unsustainable. Helping young people learn moderation in the use of these sites, then, could be key to long-term mental health.