Social Media: Friend or Foe?

How good is social media for our wellbeing? A topic of constant debate, Alyssa Shepherd explores the ways in which social media can seriously affect our emotional and physical health in ways we may not even notice.

  Employing the term ‘social media addict’ to describe yourself does not typically elicit concerned reactions from others. The term is, in fact, often placed in Instagram and Twitter bio sections, and can attract interest from media companies, looking for a knowledgeable, digital marketing wiz to help them out. An evolving body of research, however, is genuinely looking into whether the over-use of social media outlets can have a negative impact upon our mental health and wellbeing, especially among young people.  

  The Royal Society For Public Health and the Young Health Movement, for example, have published a new report, #StatusOfMind, examining the various effects that social media has on young people’s health.[1] The report has found that, today, 91% of 16-24 year-olds use the Internet for social networking, in some form. Interestingly, rates of anxiety and depression among young people have increased by an alarming 70% in the last twenty-five years. Depression and anxiety have several causes, such as genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma. But is there some connection between this concerning increase in the rates of anxiety and depression amongst young people and the amount of time we spend on social media?

  Spending copious amounts of time on social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat can negatively impact our mental health when it leaves neither time nor room for other activities in our calendars, especially time for interacting with other people or our friends in person. Whilst social media has transformed the way in which we communicate, share information and build relationships with other people, it has also isolated us. It’s now much more easy and convenient to check someone’s Facebook profile for their entire life stories, than it is to meet up with them for a drink, to hear it in person. Furthermore, scrolling through social media apps has become almost a kind of safety blanket that we grip onto while waiting for our friends in restaurants, or standing in line whilst waiting for the bus to pull up. Instead of striking up a conversation with the people standing next to us, perhaps making a new friend or potential romantic partner along the way, like something out of a cheesy ‘80s movie starring Hugh Grant, we bury our heads into our smartphones, refreshing our Twitter newsfeeds for the eighth time in the space of a minute. Why ask that good looking or interesting person sitting two seats down from you in the dentist’s waiting room out for coffee, when it’s just as easy and less nerve-wracking to swipe right on someone’s Tinder profile, and then hook up with them when you happen to see them in a club that night? ‘Social’ media may then, in actual fact, be making our lives less social, which is an extremely important part of our functioning mental health.

Social media platforms can also negatively impact our mental health owing to the distorted view it gives us of other people’s lives. Women’s magazines have, for years, been criticized for promoting unrealistic and unhealthy body images among young people through their use of photo-shopped and underweight models. Social media platforms such as Instagram, however, with their various filters and angles, are now taking over as a chief concern among charities for stirring confidence and self-worth issues. In a poll of around 1, 500 social media users, conducted by the disabled charity, Scope, 62% of them said that social media sites made them feel inadequate in their life or achievements, whilst 60% said that they felt jealous of other people’s lives after spending time on them.[2] Indeed, constantly seeing friends on holiday or enjoying nights out can often make people feel as if they are missing out on some things in life. Such feelings often promote a “compare and despair” outlook, and the unrealistic expectations set by filters on social media can leave young people feeling self-conscious or low in self-esteem. Even more dangerously, the subsequent pursuit of perfectionism can manifest itself in anxiety disorders amongst young people.

Additionally, too much screen time can affect young people’s sleeping habits. The blue light produced by our smart phones, laptops and tablets, prevents the production of the hormone melatonin, which controls our sleep cycle, more commonly known as our “circadian rhythm.” Whether scrolling through our Instagram newsfeeds, checking Twitter for news updates, or watching videos on Facebook, by keeping our minds engaged, these social media apps can make it harder to relax and settle into sleep. Lack of sleep is also a major risk factor for mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. All of these facts thus beg the question: are some vulnerable young people, who would otherwise not have suffered from mental health issues, falling victim to depression and anxiety disorders because of too much screen time and inadequate sleep?

With all of the above having been said, however, social media is not all foe. Social media can have a positive impact upon young people’s lives by widening their access to other people’s experiences of physical or mental health issues – such as the platform you are engaging with at the present moment – and expert health information. Some people who use social media report that, through their contacts, they feel more emotionally supported. With their universal reach and their unprecedented capacity to link people together from all different backgrounds, social media platforms do have the potential to perform as a positive medium for improving mental health. As with all things in life, however, moderation and balance when it comes to social media use are the keys to maintaining good mental health, especially amongst young people in such a critical time of their emotional and psychological development.