The term ‘social media’ refers to websites and applications that enable and encourage users to create and share content (e.g. uploading videos to Youtube) or build and maintain social networks (e.g. Friends in Facebook). Use of social media is widespread. For example, did you know that Facebook has around 17 million active Australian monthly users? That is out of a total population of 24 million. Gawd!
As an eMental Health Project Officer, you’d be correct in thinking that I generally have positive opinions of social media. I use it personally (@Dr_Furber) and professionally (www.phf.net.au). I’ve also seen how social media has provided a number of great platforms for the delivery of mental health supports and services. In Australia a good example is ReachOut, who have used Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness, forums to provide therapeutic spaces for young people and their website to encourage youth participation in ongoing conversations around youth mental health.
Most people who have used social media however will recognise there are downsides. Ever found yourself compulsively checking Facebook? Ever found yourself watching the lives of others on Instagram and thought to yourself “my life isn’t that exciting!”. Ever found yourself videoing an event to post to Youtube and then realise you watched the whole event through your phone? Social media opens up a range of avenues through which our mental health and wellbeing can be compromised. So is there any consensus on whether social media is good or bad for us?
A while back I found a report published in 2017 called “#StatusOfMind Social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.”
The report was written by the Royal Society for Public Health. They are an “independent health education charity” in the United Kingdom – supposedly the “world’s longest-established public health body”. They are made up of fancy sounding people (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath) which gives the organisation a slight “Games of Thrones” vibe, but essentially it is clinicians, academics and health administrators.
The report essentially consists of two parts. In the first part, the society pulled together a group of “expert academics” to comment on what the research to-date shows about the negative and positive effects of social media. In the second part, the society conducted a survey of young people (aged 14-24) and asked them to rank the different social media services in terms of the impact, both positive and negative on their mental health.
What did they find?
Not surprisingly there is good and bad news. On the positive side, research has shown that social media:
- increases people’s access to other people’s experiences of health and expert health information
- facilitates individuals joining support groups and networks based around their health or aspects of their identity
- is an effective platform for self-expression, creative output, and identity building
- is a unique place to express political identity
- helps people make, maintain and build relationships – a place to enhance connections that would otherwise not thrive
- increases individuals’ health literacy
- increases an individual’s exposure to practical evidence-based health information
On the downside, there have been multiple studies showing associations between high social media use and anxiety, depression, sleep problems, body image issues and cyber-bullying. The report suggested around 5% of young people could be considered addicted to social media, and give that young people have described social media as more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol, this is not an inconsequential addiction.
Furthermore the report suggested the link between mental health and social media use is strong enough that some research groups are experimenting with using an individual’s social media use to predict their likelihood of mental illness.
I was particularly interested in the proposed mechanisms through which social media can exert a negative influence. You might find that some of these resonate with your own experience. I certainly did.
Social media can leave us feeling a bit shit because it facilitates, encourages or elicits:
- excessive comparison with others and feelings of inadequacy, self-consciousness and low self-esteem
- a fear of missing out when seeing all the cool stuff that is happening
- an unrealistic pursuit of perfectionism in how our lives operate and appear to others
- us to develop unrealistic representations of people’s daily lives
- online peer pressure
- a false perception of how intense our offline lives should be
- heightened desire to change our appearance
- us to spend excessive time using screens and devices
- us to make appearance based comparisons with others
- us to be always contactable – that is, we have no downtime
- us to witness to a endless stream of ‘positive experiences’ of others
Yes Gareth, but not all social media is created equal…..
Yes that is a good point, and the report actually addressed this through the survey of 1479 young people (14-24).
The young people were asked to rank the five most popular social media platforms (Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instragram), in terms of their impact on 14 areas of health and well-being. Each factor was represented as a continuum from making their health and well-being “a lot worse” through to “a lot better”.
I’ve reproduced the diagrams from the report below. You will see that only Youtube was considered to have a positive net impact on health and well-being! The worst social media platform in terms of impacts on health and well-being? – Instagram!
My take on this
I think much more often we go to Youtube to be entertained (tv shows, clips, movies), to learn new skills (e.g. instructional videos), to help us make decisions (e.g. product reviews) and follow the lives of people we admire (e.g. vlogs). In this respect Youtube is a much more comprehensive in its offering and we draw on it to make improvements in our own lives. Making and posting videos to Youtube also involves a significant input of time and effort. The content we post therefore provides us with a greater sense of achievement and is more likely to be an accurate representation of some aspect of our personality or interests.
Instagram on the other hand consists of very finely curated parts (i.e. photos, short videos) of people’s lives that perhaps amplify the absence of those characteristics in our own lives. An example is how social media images affect our own sense of body image, because people only post the best photos of themselves (good article here). Its relatively easy for us to post good looking content on these photo sites, especially with the help of filters and photo modifiers. However, posting content can feel a little empty because it doesn’t necessarily reflect a) much effort on our part or b) an accurate snapshot of who we are.
What should I take away from this report?
Other than a satisfying sense of “i just read about social media, on social media” –
1) Social media use can have negative affects and a significant proportion of young people struggle with its use. Its a valid concern to speak out about if you need help (for example, speaking to one of our counsellors).
2) There is variation between the platforms in terms of their potential effects. Perhaps if you feel you are struggling with social media use, the answer isn’t just use it less, but perhaps look at what sites you are using, and how are you using them. Perhaps you actually need to invest more energy in using those platforms to truly express who you are, not simply as a way of following others. For example, use Instagram to document your favourite hobby (mine is gardening), rather than as a casual snapshot of your day.
3) More and more health and well-being people (like myself) are using social media to try and reach people. This puts lots of good (and not so good) information at your fingertips. In a future post, I’d like to address the topic of “health literacy” or how you separate out good from bad health information. In the meantime, just know that these platforms are now being used to direct health and well-being information your way.
Want to comment on this article, or ask me a question about the health and well-being services available to you as a student?
Feel free to comment below, abuse me on Twitter (@Dr_Furber), contact me on Skype (search for ‘eMental Health Project Officer Gareth’), or email me (email@example.com)