Is social media destroying our mental health?

Earlier this year I was interviewed for a piece in DigitalSpy about about social media and our mental health. Following the publication of research by the BBC today showing the rising issue of self-harm I thought I’d share the thoughts that I prepared for my interview. 

Would you say that there needs to be more awareness around the potential effect that social media can have on a person’s mental health? 

Yes definitely. A few of the impacts include:

Normalising harmful behaviours– social media can also normalise dangerous behaviours such as self-harm and even suicide. This is something that has been brought up as an ever increasing issue with a report from the BBC today stating that there ‘has been an “alarming” rise in the rates of self-harm in England.’

Continued exposure to messages of any sort makes them seem far more ordinary and as a result such behaviours become incorporated into the everyday elements of how people live their lives. They are accepted as opposed to being seen as something harmful. Research also shows that self-harming behaviours are contagious. In a real-world setting this may mean that they spread to two or three people but online this contagion can quickly spread to thousands of youngsters. 

The cumulative effect – on mental health. A bit like filling up a glass of water a drop at a time. Each drop may seem inconsequential but eventually the glass will overflow. This is the way in which social media can, for some, eat away their well-being. For example, self-esteem is lowered through comparison – seeing other people living happier more connected lives than us can make us feel socially isolated in contrast (Shensa et al., 2016). Another example is the way in which stress iteratively adds up. Stress from remaining constantly alert for new social media messages triggers our fight or flight system releasing the stress hormone cortisol. Over time this leads to chronic stress which in turn can lead to anxiety and depression. Similar stress levels can also be triggered by the constant need to project an unrealistic image within our social network. Always trying to look like we’re having fun, doing interesting things, travelling etc as a result, ‘our profiles reflect how we want to be perceived, rather than showing an honest picture of who we truly are’ which eats away at self-worth and causes identity diffusion.  

Addictive nature– we all know how hard it can be to put down our phones once we start scrolling through twitter, Instagram or any other platform. This becomes similar fodder as for addictive behaviour as drinking, smoking or over eating. 

Advice from non-experts– while it’s great that everyone now has a voice, the issue is that people who have no real expertise are dishing out advise to anyone who will listen. We are swayed by number of followers rather than proficiency of who is delivering a message. The biggest problem when it comes to this is psychological advice being doled out by people who (however well-meaning) are not trained. This can lead to people going down completely the wrong track with their thinking and behaviour which can cause or exacerbate a whole range of mental health issues. 

Would you say that there are any links to social media behaviour and a rise in any particular mental health issues?

Yes, the research shows that there are links to both anxiety and depression. One study carried out in 2017, which looked at over 12,000 young people found a statistically significant correlation between social media use and depressive symptoms. Another study conducted by psychologist Dr. Mark Becker, of Michigan State University, found a 70% increase in self- reported depressive symptoms among a group using social media and a 42% increase in social anxiety. 

Research has also found that when we focus time on building social media networks it can negatively impact our ‘real life relationships’ with our close family and friends. Our time is spent with virtual connections which tend to be more superficial in nature. As a result we begin to lose the social support available to us in real terms and that social connection is essential to living a fulfilled and emotionally resilient life. A number of studies have shown that these virtual connections can even result in long-term emotional and psychological problems. Dr. Steven Strogatz, a professor at Cornell for example worries that social media is creating a growing confusion between our weak ties (e.g. people who might be useful in referring us to a good restaurant) and our strong ties (close family and friends).  Strogatz says “The distinction between genuine friends and acquaintances is becoming blurred. Users are spending more time maintaining relationships with people they don’t really care about.” 

In addition to all that’s been mentioned above other issues linked to social media include: use of devises close to bedtime resulting in poorer sleep quality (which impacts mental health), negative impact of body image creating poor self-esteem and anxiety and of course vicious bullying enabled by anonymity and a lack of social accountability. 

One study sums up the current situation up well by saying that ‘despite the positive benefit of rapid information sharing, social media can and does lead to increased issues with mental health’. With most large-scale empirical work in this area suggesting associations between social media use and increased symptoms of depression and anxietyand decline in subjective well-being (e.g. Andreassen et al., 2016; Block et al., 2014; Kross et al., 2013; L. Y. Lin et al., 2016; Woods & Scott, 2016). It’s unrealistic to suggest that we don’t use social media or that there are no benefits. We should however be mindful of how much time we (and our kids) spend on it, how we (and our kids) use it and make sure that we (and our kids) still invest time to building our real-life relationships. 


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