The Effects of Social Media on Mental Health: Friend or Foe?
Updated: May 31, 2021
Do you remember when our lives existed completely outside of social media? Sometimes when we take a moment to pause, we realise that those days often feel like they were lived within an altogether different lifetime. It's as if those experiences were not our own, and we are entirely different people ever since the online world became such a fundamental part of our lives. From time to time, it's all too easy to reminisce over childhood, when we would live what felt like a carefree existence. Amusing ourselves with simple games that would entertain for hours; becoming completely engrossed in a film that allowed our imaginations to run wild; or running around in the fresh air outside, meeting other children to play with and begging our parents to let us stay out for just that little bit longer.
At the time, any mention of the phrases ‘social media presence' or ‘Instagram influencer’ would have been met with looks of confusion and bewilderment. But now, social media is such an integral part of many of our lives. As such, the language surrounding it rolls off the tongue without a second thought. Its rise in popularity does not come without consequence, however. Some good, some bad. Either way, it's worth looking into the impact of what has now become such a prevalent part of our daily routines. In this article, we'll discuss the effects of social media on mental health. From how children are being introduced to social media at an increasingly young age, to the issue of social media and body image - there are plenty of discussions to be had. As a digital marketing agency ourselves, it's an entirely, and even increasingly, relevant topic that we consider on a regular basis.
The Increasing Use of Social Media by Children
Born into the Age of Social Media
Children now experience the online world and social media at a particularly influential and sometimes delicate age. They do not have the privilege of a childhood without this added complication and the plethora of obstacles it can bring. Sitting right on the border between being a Millennial or a Zoomer, mid-90s babies like us were the first to experience social media at a young and vulnerable time in our lives. Despite the huge impact social media had on us as teenagers, the majority of our childhood years were lived without it. Looking back, this provides a unique opportunity for comparison. We can compare our own wellbeing and mental health, taking into account our wellbeing both before social media even existed, and after social media became so omnipresent. We can consider a life completely free of social media, and compare these to the times in life where we were sometimes consumed by it.
Children growing up now simply do not have that comparative luxury - that ability to fully appreciate the life they could lead without social media. They were born into the age of social media, and similarly, many of these children are now consumed by it.
Should Teenagers Use Social Media?
9 out of 10 UK Teenagers Use Social Media
Considering the dangers surrounding social media usage, it’s a scary thought that 9 out of 10 teenagers in the UK regularly engage with it. A recent study by The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health Journal set out to determine the extent of the 'issue', studying the social media habits of 13-year-old teenagers from a UK school. They found that 43% of the boys, and 51% of the girls, used social media at least 3 times a day. By the time these teenagers turned 16, those figures had risen. By that age, 75% of the girls were using social media at least three times a day, alongside 69% of the boys. Those using social media to this extent were found to be in a worse state regarding their mental health, when compared to their peers that used the platforms less frequently.
Neuroscience: Teenage Formation of Personality and Social Media
This raises a very serious question that none of us really have the definitive answer to just yet. Are we placing enough importance on the detrimental impact that social media has on our mental health? During our teenage years, we are especially 'malleable', as neuroscientists agree these formative years shape the personalities that follow us into our adult lives. The content we are exposed to during these years can have a profound impact on the way we think, develop certain personality traits, and of course, there is the trauma element that relates to online bullying or grooming. Not only are the ease of bullying and grooming elevated by social media, but they can lead to severe difficulties concerning the mental health of teenagers as they develop into adults.
Self Esteem and Social Media Use in Teenagers
In light of this, it seems that we often only open our eyes wide enough to the issue once it is too late. Awareness of the situation often greets us after our mental health, or the mental health of someone else, has already declined significantly. Luckily, studies are looking into it, having determined that 1 in 6 young people are now likely have some form of mental illness. In just 2017, this figure was 1 in 9. These mounting mental health issues may pertain to the fact that young people are experiencing a lack of self-esteem, depression and reduced general wellbeing. These self-depreciating thoughts these young people are so often inundated with, which could lead to these mental health issues, are largely attributed to the distinct upsurge concerning the amount of young people that use social media.
In terms of human history, social media is a very new phenomenon. As a result, we are in the early stages of learning about its positive and negative effects. We're still learning how social media can have seriously negative ramifications if we're blind to its power. From comparing our lives, relationships, and our bodies to others’, to online trolling - social media brings with it a range of psychological side effects, so to speak. The question here is, are the positive experiences we have because of social media enough to outweigh the dangers for every individual? It seems like a pretty high stakes game.
Comparison is the Thief of Joy
Speaking of the 'game,' there's a definitive sense of competitiveness among those regularly engaging in social media communications. Posting, commenting, sharing highlights, statuses; it's all in a bid to be noticed, to be seen and feel appreciated. How many times have you scrolled Instagram and seen new posts from your old school friends (or even acquaintances and influencers), only to come off the app feeling dejected and somewhat unfulfilled? As if you just haven’t been quite successful enough considering your age, you’re not quite pretty enough, you haven’t got quite enough friends. Perhaps everyone else seems to have a side hustle and you just don’t feel like you’re doing enough. Constantly looking at what everyone else is doing can make us feel as though we are not enough, never doing enough. We could always do better and be more, and be better and do more. We are our own worst critics.
Broken Boundaries Between the 'Self' and Others
The fear of missing out, as if everyone else is having a better time in all areas of their lives, mingles with these continuous comparisons we are making between ourselves and others. Quite understandably, these emotions leave us feeling somewhat unsatisfied with our own lives. Worse still, feelings of jealousy and even bitterness are sometimes brought to the surface. A string of thoughts might pop into mind when we do consider the perceived success of others. Not just thoughts about that particular person - as somehow, the boundaries between the 'self' and others have been broken down in the name of social media. Instead, we judge the juxtapositions between their lives and our own. We think thoughts like:
"How did they get that new job so quickly? I could do that job just as well as they could. I've applied for a million jobs and heard nothing. How did they afford to buy that new house? I don't have a house. How did they have the time and money to go travelling? I want to go travelling. I work just as hard and could never afford to do either of those things."
As such, social media can lead to the endless torture of constantly asking ourselves "what if" and "why". Unsurprisingly, many of us find our experiences with social media to be a bit suffocating.
Social Media, Identity and Self-Imposed Expectations
But of course, we know that social media only shows us the good stuff. We are becoming more aware of this. We look at other people’s lives with filter-tinted glasses on, most of the time only seeing the peaks of their timeline, and never the troughs. It seems all too easy to forget this, though, when we are so cruelly and relentlessly comparing ourselves to everyone else’s highlights reel or like counts. The juxtapositions between our own lives and others', and the near-constant FOMO, means we are almost never satisfied with what we have. To a deeper extent, these thoughts unnervingly creep into the issue of identity, and we also become dissatisfied with who we are.
We focus so much of our attention on what we don’t have, that we are unappreciative of what we do have. We forget all of our own successes, all of the obstacles we have overcome, and what’s important to us on an entirely unique and personal level. We forget that these individual values don’t have to be the same as everyone else’s. The constant comparison makes us question not only our own self growth and success, but whether our goals are enough. We wonder whether they are too ambitious in the first place, and we end up ridiculing ourselves as a result. These thoughts are intensified by the underlying anxieties that we have concerning how people using social media are, in a way, always watching us.
Perhaps we should wonder whether we would have these feelings as intensely if it weren’t for social media. Without an endless stream of successful moments and best angles, maybe we wouldn’t set such high standards and expectations for ourselves. Perhaps we also wouldn’t fall from such a great height when we don’t meet those self-imposed expectations. We would remember that our failures, or even our every day, ‘un-Instagrammable’ moments, are a normal and healthy part of life. In fact, they are essential.
Social Media and Relationships
The extent to which social media plays a role in all of our relationships should not be underestimated. Romantic, familial, platonic or professional, there are social media platforms for every type of relationship. Whether it be with family, friends, or your own partner - social media often causes points of contention. We judge how frequently people post about their friends or partner, and somehow equate the frequency of these social shares with the seriousness or quality of their relationships. We even look further than this, wondering if there is some hidden or ulterior motive to these 'look at us' posts. In fact, many people believe that a relationship is not fully established until it is Facebook official. If that was the case, many of us wouldn't be in relationships at all.
On a personal level, many of us end up feeling guilty for looking at a friend’s post on Instagram and forgetting to like it, or not commenting praise on it like other friends have. As if the action decides the worth or value of our relationships in any way. That’s not to say that without social media, we wouldn’t want to celebrate our friends’ successes and positive qualities. Being there for others is part of what a friendship is in the first place. But the uncertainty remains. Do we question or worry about our relationships as much when we're offline? What about when we're stuck in our own anxious, online bubbles? We set such high expectations for ourselves and others online that we simply cannot, and should not, have to live up to.
Is Social Media Damaging your Relationships?
The definitive goal of social media is to make social interactions and connections easier. We all know from personal experience that this isn't always the case. In determining the impact that social media has on your own relationships, consider the following:
Are there relationships in your life that you feel would be different or enriched if it weren’t for social media?
Would these relationships be improved if your habits surrounding social media were healthier?
Could your mental health and wellbeing be improved - to any degree - if social media wasn't such a constant reminder of comparison?
Imagine how things might change if you weren’t able to compare your relationships to others’, or fret about your own online, due to social media.
Social Media, Online Bullying and Trolling
The connections between social media and our relationships extend way beyond how social media can cause friction between our - otherwise entirely positive and reciprocal - relationships. The negative interactions we experience online often come from those we may have negative relationships with, or a complete stranger with whom we have no relationship at all. Online bullying and trolling is no secret. In fact, it seems to be an accepted part of 21st century life.
The Inability to 'Escape' from Bullying on Social Media
Disturbingly, cyberbullying and social media might even be partially to blame for increased rates of suicide. A study carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that 14% of headteachers in the UK have dealt with “hurtful” things posted on social media about their students on a weekly basis - a rising issue. The Office for National Statistics also reports that between March 2019 and March 2020, 19% of children aged 10 - 15 had experienced some form of online bullying. These are whole new statistics created due to bullying, expedited by the rise of social media. Now, school children are experiencing a completely new level of trauma when it comes to bullying. Gone are the days that a student could only be bullied within the walls of their school environment, able to leave when the school bell rang, and they could retreat back to the safety of their homes. Today, those children come home from school, turn on their phones, look at their social media accounts, and the bullying continues. There is no respite. There can surely be no question that this inability to disengage from those that are intent on causing harm is damaging the mental health of children.
And yet further to the point, no one seems to be exempt from online bullying and trolling. These acts of malicious intent often come in the form of harassment, which many of us seem desensitized to due to its prevalence within our everyday experiences. Our constant attachment to the online world, yet intertwined with our complete detachment from and lack of understanding towards celebrities, leaves those in the spotlight open to particularly severe hatred and targeted bullying. Despite recent laws having been introduced to tackle online abuse, online activity can be more difficult to prosecute than offline behaviour. Quite rightly, many believe there are still fundamental issues with the laws currently in place.
The impact of social media bullying was all too clearly demonstrated in the case of Caroline Flack and her devastating suicide in 2020. Many would argue that considering Caroline’s already unstable mental health (as spoken of by her friends and family in the documentary 'Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death'), the bullying she received online served only to exacerbate her psychological distress. This bullying that was so relentlessly inflicted not only by the media themselves, but by thousands of trolls on social media, sadly, provoked her already vulnerable state of mind to descend further into a depressive state. For many of us, this unfortunate news was a hard hitting reminder of the negative effects of social media on mental health.
The Grey Area: The Positive Impact of Social Media
Some might say the answer is easy. Simply don’t go online - children of a certain age shouldn’t be on social media anyway. But we know it’s really not that straightforward anymore. Social media is now such an integral part of our lives, and it would be unfair to expect anyone who wanted to partake in that world to have to lose out completely. Likewise, it isn’t fair for those impacted to have to constantly worry about ‘blocking’ or ignoring comments.
Uplifting Online Communities
While the bad stuff is really bad, this argument does not allow for the positive experiences that social media can enable. Many have found communities online that do uplift them, a place where they can be themselves. Perhaps we should therefore pose the question - is social media good for making friends? When it is used in the ways it was designed to be used, the answer is probably a simple one - yes. It is reported that around 64% of US teenagers say they have made friends via social media. Positive online communities can be great for those that are more introverted, for those that may struggle to make friends face to face. There is a world of opportunity to be had, connections to be made, and people to make friends with or be inspired by on social media.
Social Media and Activism
Activism can thrive online. Social media has become an invaluable tool to not only protest humanitarian issues, but to spread awareness and knowledge, with the potential to secure more permanent change in the future. Unfortunately, awareness surrounding some of the recent Black Lives Matter protests or current environmental issues may not have been as far-reaching if it wasn't for social media helping to spread the word.
As we know, many of us connect with others online that have similar interests, issues or worries as ourselves. We often benefit from better mental health as the result of being able to do this, whilst social wellbeing increases. Social wellbeing can have an even wider-reaching impact than the wellbeing of just one individual. Social wellbeing is the “basis of social equality, social capital [and] social trust”. It is “the antidote to racism, stigma, violence and crime”. So perhaps social media isn’t all that bad - it’s not such a black and white discussion after all.
Social Media and Body Image
An all-too concurrent issue within the social media platforms today - how our relationships with ourselves may have shifted due to the continuous feed of comparison. With the introduction of social media came the birth of the ‘selfie’. We started posting photos of ourselves online in the hopes that others would like our post, feed our ego and boost our confidence. If not ourselves, we all know someone who has noted they felt unattractive because they did not get ‘enough’ likes on a photo of themselves. We judge ourselves and others incessantly by outward appearances.
Vanity Selfies and Snapchat Dysmorphia
We waste physical time and mental energy trying to perfect the best angle, find the most flattering filter, and for some, even edit and physically ‘enhance’ our pictures. Studies have shown that girls in the UK spend around 84 minutes each week just getting ready to take a photo of themselves. A new term,