The rise of social media has made the world more connected than ever before. But the addictive nature of these platforms has led to debate surrounding their impact on mental health.
Excessive usage exacerbates feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness, particularly amongst the younger generation. It also causes low self-esteem, self-absorption, and has led to an uptick in cyberbullying.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Routine usage has also been shown to have positive impacts on social well-being and mental health, allowing people to express themselves, learn more about the world around us and it has compensated for diminishing face-to-face interactions.
Not all apps are created equal
It would be too simplistic and broad to suggest that all social media is negative or positive. There are many different social media platforms available, and each one has an independent, complex relationship with our mental health.
According to a study conducted by the Royal Society of Public Health, which examined the well-being of over 1,400 young adults in the UK, Instagram was found to be the worst platform, followed by Snapchat in second, Facebook taking third and Twitter in fourth. Interestingly, YouTube was identified as the best platform, scoring the highest marks for health and mental well-being. It was also the only platform to receive net positive scores overall, suggesting it’s actually good for our mental health.
Instagram and Snapchat, unsurprisingly, scored poorly on ‘body image’ with 90% of women reporting they were unhappy with their body due to these platforms. Anxiety due to the fear of missing out (FOMO) or being excluded from popular social events was also most prevalent on these platforms.
Poor sleep quality and bullying were reported on all 5 platforms, but conversely all sites received positive scores for self-expression, self-identify, community building and emotional support. YouTube received high marks for providing trustworthy information, bringing awareness to people’s health experiences, and decreasing loneliness, anxiety and depression.
The study also provided suggestions for how to reduce the negative impacts caused by social media. This included flagging when photos are edited, awareness classes in school, and in-app usage warnings.
Since 2017, when the study was conducted, social media platforms have taken some steps to address these issues. Instagram, for example, introduced a feature whereby users can flag other users they think are struggling with mental health issues, and testing was conducted on hiding the ‘likes’ feature to prevent users from comparing themselves to each other. Though, this feature hasn’t been permanently implemented (yet), and with mental health issues and usage on these platforms both on the rise, many would argue not enough has been done to curb the negative aspects.
Healthy Versus Problematic Usage
A recent study, conducted by a team at the Public Health School, Harvard, examined the social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health of two groups of social media users; routine users, defined as those using social media as part of their everyday routine but having no obsessive attachments; and emotionally connected users, defined as those who are more likely to excessively check apps for fear of missing out or those who feel disappointed if disconnected from friends on these platforms.
This is an interesting take as most studies will look at frequency or duration of usage, and seldom examine users' emotional connectiveness to these platforms.
As you may have expected, the Harvard team discovered that emotionally connective usage was negatively associated with all 3 health outcomes. But what was intriguing about this study was that not only did routine users report any negative health effects, they actually displayed positive outcomes, going against most pre-conceived notions.
Mesfin Awoke Bekalu, the co-author of the study, explains this could be due to social media’s positive influence on enabling people to “connect and re-connect with others and thereby expand and strengthen their in-person networks and interactions”. Social media provides a connective space that overcomes barriers of distance and time. This could be especially important in the new pandemic era, where we need to compensate for diminishing face to face interactions.
The findings suggest that as long as we’re mindful of our usage and don’t allow ourselves to become emotionally invested in these platforms, then routine use is not a problem for our mental health. On the contrary, it may be more beneficial than we realise.