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A Look into Social Media and Mental Health
January 30, 2018
In 1997, the first modern social network, Six Degrees, was launched. In 2004, Facebook was founded. Today, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram are just a few of the many social networks that follow.
In recent times, these platforms have adopted a much more important and valuable role in the lives of many. The result is a complex phenomenon; there are a variety of ways in which social media affects the mental health of individuals. The debate that social media has provoked has gained great momentum over the past few years. The fact remains that social media and mental health appear to affect one another.
The Beginning of an Era
The technological and educational advancements in the medical field since the turn of the 20th century are numerous. What once was a fatal disease is now known as the “flu” and is offset by numerous vaccines. Even mental health issues appeared to have been addressed—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates had been on a steady decline since 1990. However, this pattern changed directions, beginning in 2010.
The commonality of mental health troubles has jumped, as shown by a doubling of mental illness-related hospital admissions. Yet, a plethora of medical resources suggests a drastic decrease in infections, chronic diseases, and other ailments. Why, then, has the progress in preventing psychological diseases stalled? Many point to social media.
With the technological revolution at the turn of the 20th century came a surge of media and communication in much of the developed world, largely in the form of social networking sites (SNS) and smartphones. With the advent of mobile web browsers, countless social media applications, WiFi, and data networks, it was inevitable that social media would, too, begin its own revolution, leading to an unforeseeable transformation in the lifestyles of users.
Analyzing the Powerhouse
According to David G. Myers and C. Nathan DeWall’s textbook, Exploring Psychology in Modules, 94% of the U.S.’s incoming college freshmen in 2014 were using SNS.
With this rise in usership, the debate regarding social media’s influence on users has gained momentum in the past few years. Social media platforms have become a target for many, including Sreedhar Potarazu of CNN Opinion. Regarding the similarly growing rates of SNS usage and mental health issues among young adults, Potarazu points to brain development. According to Potarazu, the access to social networking to which teens are accustomed is a barrier for brain development.
“Imagine the stress of high school—the competition for popularity, the pressure to fit in, the judgmental nature of social activities—at an accelerated pace,” Potarazu writes. Children are beginning to expect immediate response and gratification due to this fast-paced mindset, something that is not always available in the real world. According to Potarazu, this is something that needs to be addressed—whether it’s through increased structure, education, awareness, or counseling pertaining to social media usage.
This relationship between social media and users’ brains is something that many recognize, including Dr. Deborah Kulick, a child psychiatrist at CRLS’ Teen Health Center and the medical director of mental health services for all Cambridge Health Alliance teen health centers. She feels that there is a definite association between mental health issues and social media.
“[Teenagers’] executive functions are not fully [developed] until they are 25,” Dr. Kulick explains. She points to the maturing brain as a reason why teenagers may be more affected by social media than adults. “They have this constant sensation from social media … and it’s creating demands on the amygdala [a section of the brain that is responsible for experiencing emotions] and overwhelming their pleasure circuit and … their executive functioning capacities.”
Recognition of the Benefits
However, Dr. Jay Watts, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist based in London, does not quite agree. According to Dr. Watts, social networking platforms are not intrinsically bad. In fact, the benefits are copious in terms of building community, developing one’s brain, and boosting self-expression. The target for criticism, says Watts in The Independent, should not be the platforms themselves but the manner in which they are used.
Many supporters of social media point, like Watts, to friendship and communication as key benefits of these platforms. As Tim Anstiss said in The Guardian, “Being part of a community provides access to information, advice, and a supportive network of people who can understand and empathize with what is still, unfortunately, a largely misunderstood illness in mainstream society.”
This idea of using SNS to promote communication and social relationships is of great importance to students, especially as students’ lives grow increasingly packed with schoolwork and extracurriculars. “[Social media is] a way for me to be in touch with my friends when I’m not around them,” junior Tariq Lucona says. Members of sports teams, clubs, and musical groups at CRLS also use social media. “I was on the JV soccer team in the fall and run track now, so Facebook is a good way to know what’s happening with the team,” explains freshman Eben Lowenstein.
Lowenstein also joins many who feel that the types of interactions that are encouraged by SNS have a positive effect on their self-image. “When I post a picture on Instagram or … [on] my Snapchat story, it is a nice feeling when they get a lot of likes or views,” he says, adding that although views and likes are not a reflection of one’s worth, knowing that people care about you and what you say is heartwarming.
Social media platforms have also led to benevolence, sophomore Emma Dhanda remarks. “Though I see many articles on abhorrent acts that people around the world are engaging in, I also see a lot of acts of kindness that help the world overall,” she says. Dhanda refers to social justice posts (which are sometimes even featured on comedy accounts), petitions, and GoFundMes, all of which allow members of various communities to take part in making a change.
Data suggests that many CRLS students feel similarly. Although the amount of time spent on SNS varies for individuals, of 195 CRLS students surveyed by the Register Forum, 93% said that they use “any sort of social media”—and a significant portion (16.9%) of students feel that this usage has a positive effect on their mental health.
Though nearly 17% of students felt that the relationship between social media and mental health was positive, 46% of students felt the opposite. These users point to issues regarding its effect on self-image—which includes self-confidence, self-esteem, and one’s ideal self—as well as feelings of exclusion.
“You can find these ‘Instagram models’ or celebrities that negatively affect self-esteem, and even if you know they use photoshop or have surgery to look this way, you still feel pressured to be the same,” comments junior Sara Jackson MacManus. This type of influence often push es users to strive for a certain appearance. It has taken form in many different ways: “thinspiration,” “thigh gaps,” and even “selfies.”
Senior Smarika Suwal feels similarly, explaining that Instagram is a stream of unrealistic, perfect images, one after another. “Seeing only one side of the lives of others—the side they want to present to the world—often leaves me feeling inadequate, because I am aware of my own flaws, but not theirs,” she explains, continuing, “You start to wonder: Is there something wrong with me? Why is everyone around me so much more attractive, accomplished, or happy? What am I doing wrong?”
This idea is one that is largely agreed upon by other students. Social media platforms allow people to pick and choose the parts of their lives that they wish to display, resulting in reflections that are not entirely accurate, for better or for worse. “Most people struggle silently, and it is nearly impossible to tell what is going on in [their lives] solely through their Instagram page,” says Suwal.
Several professionals have also recognized this. Benoit Denizet-Lewis, the author of a teen anxiety feature in the New York Times Magazine, discussed the phenomenon with Stephanie Eken, a psychiatrist at Rogers Behavioral Health. “When I asked Eken about other common sources of worry among highly anxious kids, she didn’t hesitate: social media,” Denizet-Lewis writes. According to Denizet-Lewis, teenagers from all different backgrounds relentlessly compare themselves to others, often leading to a negative self-image.
“Why Wasn’t I Invited?”
Yet another issue that students point to is the idea of exclusion—something that is especially relevant in the lives of high schoolers. In fact, it has even been given its own title: “fear of missing out,” also known as FOMO. “FOMO is what social media is inducing for many people these days,” says junior Jemma Kepner. “Seeing a Snapchat story of a party with my friends [when] I’m not [there] can make me feel unwanted and insecure, and I know that is the same for others.”
Of surveyed CRLS students, 28% agreed or strongly agreed that scrolling through social media feeds makes them feel “left out” or “sad.” Students who reported using social media for more than two hours a day were 1.44 times (44%) more likely to say that social media makes them feel “left out,” compared to students who use social media for less than two hours a day.
Interestingly enough, these feelings of being left out, whether reasonable or not, have effects that simulate experiencing real pain. According to a study highlighted in Exploring Psychology in Modules, exclusion on social media—whether it’s through being unfriended, ignored, unanswered, or even just having a small number of followers—activates brain areas, such as the anterior cingulate cortex, that are also activated when feeling physical pain. As a result, our brains and our bodies ache; in fact, pain relievers have even been found to help in these situations.
The Disconcerting Truth
Although often left undiscussed, mental health-related issues affect many individuals. According to Denizet-Lewis’ New York Times Magazine feature, anxiety and depression are the leading reasons why college students seek counseling. Those who are affected are not just college students, though: 41% of surveyed CRLS students agreed to feeling “overwhelmingly anxious and/or worried” in their daily life, while 24% agreed to feeling “overwhelmingly sad, distressed, and/or depressed.”
Students who used social media for more than two hours a day were 1.69 times (69%) more likely to report feeling daily symptoms of depression compared to students who use social media for less than two hours a day. The same remains true for symptoms of anxiety, but with slightly less of a difference between the two groups. Although it is difficult to define the exact relationship between social media use and mental health, it appears that there is a link between the two.
Why, then, do young adults continue to spend large quantities of time on social media platforms? In this day and age, technology has become a primary source of communication, and the need to stay in touch with friends and family—even when not face-to-face—has risen. Social media serves this exact purpose.
“Social media is almost essential for finding out what’s going on in the world,” says Emma Dhanda. Many surveyed students felt similarly, explaining that although the relationship between SNS and mental health does not seem to be entirely positive, there is no practical way to address that.
In a TIME Magazine editorial, Amanda MacMillan discusses the findings of a report published by scientific academy Royal Society. The report reads, “Social media isn’t going away soon, nor should it. We must be ready to nurture the innovation that the future holds.”
The Question that Remains Unanswered
So, should teenagers be left to their own devices? There are several factors to consider, as shown by the varying findings of researchers and opinions of social media users. Many, including Dr. Kulick, believe that the key to addressing this issue is balance. “Like any other safe, pleasurable substance used in too much quantity—like [devouring] food or avoiding your homework and spending time with friends—there’s a consequence. The same is true for social media,” she says, urging teenagers to be more mindful with social media usage and set limits.
Students seem to agree with the role of balance when it comes to social media. “Sometimes [on social media] I see people hanging out without me, but sometimes I’ll post a picture and look fly as hell,” junior Jonathan Matsko explains. Many others feel similarly; some students, including Matsko, even refused to choose just one answer when asked how they believe that social media affects their mental health.
Numerous research studies and surveys have been conducted about social media and teens, but they all have their limitations. The Register Forum survey conducted of CRLS students got responses from 195 students out of a possible 1,913 in the student body.
Moreover, many studies point to a correlation between social media use and mental health issues—meaning the connection may have been caused by a coincidence. It remains necessary to dive deeper into this phenomenon, to uncover signs of direct causation, and to understand why one’s mind reacts to a Snapchat pop-up the way that it does.
Although the current information regarding this topic is not complete, it is possible to conclude that social networking sites are not just a positive, communicative resource. However, every individual is impacted by these forces differently depending on their personal needs.
To some, social media may be much more harmful than it is to others, meaning that individuals must act responsibly for themselves, finding their own boundaries and limits.
“Not many adolescents seek treatment for their use of social media. But if you are concerned—or someone that cares about you is concerned—about your use of social media and its impact on your mental health, you should definitely speak with someone about it,” Dr. Kulick explains, addressing the need for self-advocacy.
Visiting the Teen Health Center or having a simple conversation with another individual are great resources for students, she adds. “You know, don’t just sit there and suffer alone. Talk about it—people are increasingly talking about this phenomenon.”
This piece also appears in our January print edition.