Depending on which generation you were born in, you might see social media as an effective and borderline necessary tool for maintaining human connections, or a dystopian temptation that does more harm than good. With 74 percent of people using Facebook alone on a daily basis, and nearly 2 hours of average daily time spent on social media in general, this distinction is more than just a trivial observation; it could mean the difference between improving and ruining our lives.
It’s irresponsible to trust our own anecdotal experiences and beliefs, however, so we have to turn to science and data analytics to figure out what’s really going on here. Just how does social media affect our mental health and rates of mental illness, and what, if anything, can be done about it?
Why Mental Illness Matters
We don’t treat mental health the same way we treat physical health in this culture. Despite 450 million people worldwide suffering from some kind of mental illness (including mood and anxiety disorders), we still stigmatize it, which makes it harder to seek treatment. Understanding the roots of mental health and reshaping our environments to support mental health is the first step in eliminating this stigma for good.
Mental illness isn’t just about getting sad or going crazy; it can take a serious toll on your everyday life and your future, from interfering with your ability to work and be productive to being a deciding factor in a custody battle. If the tools we use to communicate every day are increasing—or otherwise affecting mental illness rates, we deserve to know.
So what do we know, with reasonable certainty, about the relationship here?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that social media can have significant benefits for mental health. One of the most important elements of a person’s life for staving off mental illness and being healthier is social interaction—being able to maintain a network of close friends and family members, and talk to them whenever you’re experiencing hard times. Social media makes it possible to stay in contact with these people more easily and reach them at a moment’s notice.
There’s also research to suggest that college students who look at their own Facebook profiles see a boost in self-esteem and confidence; social media gives us a platform to put our best foot forward, and feel good about ourselves.
Social media may enable mental illness to develop faster, or develop in an unseen way. Most platforms orient themselves to be a kind of highlight reel, giving users a platform to share only the most valuable highlights from their lives; accordingly, it may be harder to notice that your best friend is going through a period of depression, or see the effects of your parent’s anxiety disorder. With less visibility and less personal interactions, it becomes harder to recognize and support people struggling with mental health issues, and those issues can easily become worse because of it.
Concealing mental illnesses is just the beginning, however. In addition to being used as a tool to exacerbate or mask signs of mental illness, social media can be a source of mental and emotional distress. Social media allows for the emergence of cyberbullying, a phenomenon which 34 percent of students report experiencing. To an adult, cyberbullying may not seem like a big deal—after all, kids will be kids, regardless of technological access—but considering peer victimization is associated with significantly higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, and that suicides are the second-ranking cause of death for adolescents, this is a side effect to be taken seriously.
Social media also has the power to make us feel more isolated, despite its central functionality of keeping us connected. We may have more social interactions with people, but those interactions are less valuable and superficially rewarding; in other words, we feel like we’re having meaningful connections, but we aren’t. In addition, social media forces us to confront a “gold standard” of experiences; we compare our lives to the ideals we see on social media, and can’t help but wind up feeling unfulfilled and disconnected.
In extreme cases, social media can even be a source of real addiction; the instant gratification and variable payouts of social media can make it hard for some people to focus on anything else.
The High-Level View
When used responsibly, social media can have a positive impact on our mental health and wellbeing, but there are several negative effects that warrant further exploration and understanding. Using social media in moderation, and introspecting to comprehend how it may be affecting you, are key if you want to avoid these effects.